the story behind oil
how we use oil products
The next natural question is what is oil used for in the US? The vast majority of petroleum consumed in the US is used for transportation – two thirds of the petroleum consumed in the US goes to fuel our cars, trucks and airplanes5. The remainder is used to create the many oil-based products used in industry and our houses such as lubricants and plastics, to generate electricity, and to heat our homes in certain parts of the country. (note: Transportation category includes transportation fuel for residential, commercial and industrial activities)
environmental impacts of petroleum use
There are several primary environmental impacts of using petroleum products: air emissions, including both greenhouse gases (which contribute to global warming) and air pollutants, spills, and the land disturbed and altered by oil drilling, pipelines, storage tanks and processing plants.
Oil and its associated products are composed of complex molecules that, when burned, produce relatively high levels of carbon dioxide and air pollutants like sulfur dioxide (a key cause of acid rain) and nitrogen oxides (a key component of smog). The chart below shows a relative comparison of the carbon dioxide emissions that come from burning equivalent units of various fossil fuels6. The chart shows that while fuel oil (used in heating) and gasoline emit less pollutants than coal, they contribute approximately 33% more carbon dioxide than does natural gas. Each gallon of gasoline we burn contributes over 19 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere7. And, burning gasoline produces five times more nitrogen oxides, and 1,000 times more sulfur dioxides than does burning natural gas8.
In total, the burning of oil products produces 40% of United States carbon dioxide emissions9. Annually, the burning of oil in the US produces over 2,300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. By driving our cars and trucks and buying petroleum-based products, we generate more carbon dioxide in the United States than any other country does by burning ALL sources of fuel except for China10.
There are many other environmental impacts of consuming oil as well.
They fall into the following categories:
- Stormwater pollution from oil left on roads by cars and illegal dumping
- Pollution from spills
- Habitat destruction from drilling, pipelines and processing facilities
- Air pollution from petroleum emissions (before being burned as fuel)
The National Research Council estimated that, between 1990 and 1999, over 260,000 tons of oil were released into the natural environment in North America from various sources each year, and over 1,300,000 tons worldwide11. The bulk of this comes from natural “seeps” where oil naturally flows out of the ground and onto land or waterways (160,000 tons). However, 100,000 tons in North America, and 700,000 tons worldwide come directly from human activities. The largest source after natural seeps is “land-based and stormwater runoff” which generates 54,000 tons of oil discharge per year. This is mostly what leaks out of our cars and other engines onto our yards, driveways and streets. When it rains, it is carried directly into our streams, rivers and oceans. This illustrates how important it is to dispose of such substances properly, to keep your vehicles in good condition, and to reduce the amount of water that runs off from your yard and driveway. The full details of these spill amounts are as follows:
Another major environmental impact is the land taken up by all of the wells, pipelines, roads, processing plants and other facilities needed to remove oil from the ground and turn it into commercial products. This is often called the “footprint”. There are approximately 500,000 operating oil wells12, 573,000 crude oil storage tanks13, 80,000 miles of oil pipeline14, almost 170,000 gas stations15 and 150 oil refineries16 in the US alone. Some relatively conservative assumptions17 suggest that this infrastructure could occupy over 800,000 acres, which is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.
And there is air pollution NOT counting greenhouse gases. In addition to being the largest source of carbon dioxide in the United States, petroleum products and their consumption are also one of the largest sources of toxic air emissions in the United States. In 2002, the production and consumption of petroleum-based products produced over 14 million tons of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, representing 90% of total US emissions. VOCs are a class of chemicals that can, among other things, cause in cancer and respiratory disease.
What is the bottom line? It is that our consumption of oil, while providing many services and products vital to our everyday lives, also has many serious consequences above and beyond the obvious ones. Key contributor to global warming, source of dangerous water contamination and air pollution, consumer of large swaths of land, element of dependence on unstable foreign governments – there are many reasons to reduce your consumption of oil.
5 From Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Review, http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/txt/stb0513a.xls
6 US EPA 2006 Greenhouse Gas Inventory, http://yosemite.epa.gov/oar/globalwarming.nsf/UniqueKeyLookup/RAMR6P5M5M/$File/06FastFacts.pdf
7 Based on TerraPass estimates
8 Natural Gas Supply Association: www.naturalgas.org/environment/naturalgas.asp
9 All data taken from the EPA 2006 US Emissions Inventory (All data taken from the EPA 2006 US Emissions Inventory (http://yosemite.epa.gov/OAR/globalwarming.nsf/UniqueKeyLookup/RAMR6MBLP3/$File/06Energy.pdf)
10 US Energy Information Administration: http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/international/iealf/tableh1co2.xls
11 National Academy of Sciences: http://dels.nas.edu/dels/rpt_briefs/oil_in_the_sea_final.pdf
12 National Energy Technology Laboratory, http://www.netl.doe.gov/technologies/oil-gas/EP_Technologies/ImprovedRecovery/StripperWellTech/StripperWell.html
13 US EPA, http://www.epa.gov/gasstar/pdf/lessons/ll_final_vap.pdf
14 Pipeline 101 website, http://www.pipeline101.com/Overview/crude-pl.html
15 Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/oil_gas/petroleum/analysis_publications/primer_on_gasoline_prices/html/petbro.html#1
16 Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/oil_gas/petroleum/data_publications/refinery_capacity_data/current/table1.pdf
17 Each drilling pad, service station and tank assumed to take up ¼ acre; pipelines have on average a 50’ right-of-way along their length; and refineries occupy 200 acres.