How Dependent is Society on Oil?

Have you ever stopped to consider how important crude oil, which generates a myriad of petroleum products, is in our daily lives?

Quite apart from petrol, diesel, jet fuel and a few other “fossil fuel” type products, which many environmental groups would like us to live without, refined petroleum products are used for many items that we need to maintain our lives and quality of life. Thus, if we stopped exploring for and developing petroleum, we’d also have to forego most of those every day items produced from petroleum or potentially produce them with more costly less environmentally sensitive materials.

Remarkably, a 159-litre (42-US gallon) barrel of typical crude oil, when refined, produces 169 litres (44 US gallons) of useful product. This consists of 72 litres of petrol, 35 litres of diesel, 14 litres of jet fuel, 20 litres of heating oil/heavy fuel oil/LPG and 28 litres of other products. Thus, other products represent 16% of a barrel of crude oil.  These other products contribute to a vast range of over 6,000 different items. YES, THE POPULATION CURRENTLY USES OVER 6,000 ITEMS PRODUCED FROM PETROLEUM.

It is fair to say that the world we know would not exist were it not for crude oil. One of the major products made from crude oil are plastics. Without plastics, alternative materials would need to be found for the literally thousands of items that we depend on every day such as computers, mobile phones, credit cards and children’s toys.

Other products, including nylon and polyester, contribute to many other items that we depend on daily. Even a partial list of products would be difficult to provide in a short article but the products of petroleum can be found in most areas of our daily lives. These, with some examples, include agriculture (fertilisers, irrigation piping); the office (ink cartridges, pens, binders, Scotch tape, copiers); clothing/textiles; recreation (waterproof clothing, golf balls/bags, back-packs, surf boards, playground equipment); medical (latex gloves, antihistamines, syringes, heart valves); household (freezer containers, lunch boxes, bags, paint, microwave cookware); furnishings (carpets, curtains); cosmetics (shampoo, Vaseline, moisturising cream); transportation (asphalt, tyres) and a huge array of miscellaneous items (candles, guitar strings, balloons). THUS, PETROLEUM OR CRUDE OIL IS INTEGRATED INTO OUR DAILY LIVES.

The cartoon in a student exercise on “Why do we need Petroleum?” depicts what happens to a room in our house if all those items made with petroleum were removed! The table below lists just 144 of the more than 6000 items that can be made using crude oil.

A partial list of products made from petroleum (144 from over 6000)

A partial list of products made from petroleum (144 from over 6000)
Source: http://www.ranken-energy.com/Products%20from%20Petroleum.htm

The Norwood Resource supports the concept that alternatives to petroleum products will eventually be needed by society. Thus, searching for and researching alternative renewable energy sources is essential. However, even if we could replace those 141 litres of “fossil fuel” currently derived from a barrel of crude oil with renewables, what alternatives are there to the 6000 or more items that are derived from the remaining 28 litres? The health sector has considered what will happen when petroleum becomes scarce in a study entitled “Energy and Public Health-The Challenge of Peak Petroleum”. Although some of these items can be replaced, the replacements are generally at a higher cost. Also, replacements can be less environmentally sustainable (eg cotton replacing polyester).

In conclusion, for the foreseeable future, it is very unlikely society will easily wean itself off its dependency on fossil fuels plus the myriad of items generated from petroleum products. Thus, whenever someone claims that society should stop searching for and developing petroleum resources perhaps they should be asked if they will stop being selective about the facts and participate in a balanced debate about how society can transition from the petroleum era to the non-petroleum era.

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  1. […] at articles we have already published on this website to gain an understanding about how important oil & gas products are in our everyday lives. Consider whether you, or the eNGOs, could get by […]

  2. […] farm to factory to our supermarket shelves), plastics for our mobile phones and computers and a myriad of other essential everyday products, all to gain some notoriety on the basis of a […]

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