Boycott Big Oil? Prepare to give up your lifestyle

Jun 11, 2010 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
Graphic shows products made from a barrel of crude oil, including household products

(AP) -- Has the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico got you so mad you're ready to quit Big Oil?

Ready to park the car and take up bike-riding or walking? Well, your bike and your sneakers have petroleum products in them. And sure, you can curb energy use by shutting off the AC, but the electric fans you switch to have plastic from oil and gas in them. And the insulation to keep your home cool, also started as oil and gas. Without all that, you'll sweat and it'll be all too noticeable because deodorant comes from oil and gas too.

You can't even escape petroleum products with a nice cool fast-food milkshake - which probably has a petrochemical-based thickener.

Oil is everywhere. It's in carpeting, furniture, computers and clothing. It's in the most personal of products like toothpaste, shaving cream, lipstick and vitamin capsules. Petrochemicals are the glue of our modern lives and even in glue, too.

Because of that, petrochemicals are in our blood.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested humans for environmental chemicals and metals, it recorded 212 different compounds. More than 180 of them are products that started as natural gas or oil.

"It's the material basis of our society essentially," said Michael Wilson, a research scientist at the University of California Berkeley. "This is the Petrochemical Age."

Louisiana State University environmental sciences professor Ed Overton, who works with the government on oil spill chemistry, said: "There's nothing that we do on a daily basis that isn't touched by petrochemicals."

When in the movie "The Graduate" young Benjamin is given advice about the future, it comes in one word: plastics. About 93 percent of American plastics start with natural gas or oil.

"Just about anything that's not iron or steel or metal of some sort has some petrochemical component. And that's just because of what we've been able to do with it," said West Virginia University chemistry professor Dady Dadyburjor.

Nothing shows how pervasive and malleable petrochemicals are better than shampoo, said Kevin Swift, director of economics and statistics for the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry's trade association. The bottle is plastic. The cap is plastic. The seal and the label, too. The ink comes from petrochemicals and even the glue that holds the label to the bottle comes from oil or gas.

In this Nov. 21, 2007 file photo, Shell Oil Company's Deer Park refinery and petrochemical facility is shown in the background as vehicles travel along Highway 225 in Deer Park, Texas. The Gulf oil spill may have people ready to quit petroleum cold turkey, but it's not that easy. Oil is everywhere. It permeates our daily lives in ways we never think about. It's in carpeting, furniture, computers and clothing. It's in the most personal of products like toothpaste, shaving cream, lipstick and vitamin capsules. Petrochemicals are the glue of our modern lives and even in glue, too. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

"The shampoo - it's all derived from petrochemicals," Swift said. "A bottle of shampoo is about 100 percent chemistry."

Just add a bit of natural fragrance.

What makes oil and natural gas the seed stock for most of our everyday materials is the element that is the essence of life: carbon.

The carbon atom acts as the spine with other atoms attaching to it in different combinations and positions. Each variation acts in new ways, Dadyburjor said.

John Warner, a former Polaroid scientist and University of Massachusetts chemistry professor, called petroleum "fundamentally a boring material" until other atoms are added and "you unleash a textbook of modern chemistry."

"Take a very complicated elegant beautiful molecule, bury it in the ground 100 million years, remove all the functionality and make hydrocarbons," said Warner, one of the founders of the green chemistry movement that attempts to be more ecologically sustainable. "Then take all the toxic nasty reagents and put back all the functional groups and end up with very complicated molecules."

The age of petrochemicals started and took root shortly after World War II, spurred by a government looking for replacements for rubber.

"Unfortunately there's a very dark side," said Carnegie Mellon chemistry professor Terry Collins. He said the underlying premise of the petrochemical industry is that "those little molecules will be good little molecules and do what they're designed for and not interact with life. What we're finding is that premise is wrong, profoundly wrong. What we're discovering is that there's a whole world of low-dose (health) effects."

Many of these chemicals are disrupting the human hormone system, Collins said.

These are substances that don't appear in nature and "they accumulate in the human body, they persist in the environment," Berkeley's Wilson said. The problem is science isn't quite sure how bad or how safe they are, he said.

But plastics also do good things for the environment, the chemistry council says. Because plastics are lighter than metals, they helped create cars that save fuel. A 2005 European study shows that conversion to plastic materials in Europe saved 26 percent in fuel.

"Compared to the alternatives, it reduces greenhouse gases (which cause global warming) and saves energy; that is rather ironic," Swift said.

Still, chemists who want more sustainable materials are working on alternatives. Another founder of green chemistry, Paul Anastas, an assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, said: "We can make those things in other ways."

LSU's Overton is old enough to remember the days before petrochemicals. There were no plastic milk and soda containers. They were glass. Desks were heavy wood. There were no computers, cell phones and not much air conditioning.

"It's a much more comfortable life now, much more convenient," Overton said.

Swift said trying to live without petrochemicals now doesn't make sense, but he added: "it would make a good reality TV show."

Explore further: US exports help Germany increase coal, pollution

2.9 /5 (8 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

US petroleum dependency factor of history

Feb 14, 2009

When the Drake Oil Well in Titusville, Pennsylvania began seeping crude oil 150 years ago, humanity allowed itself to become engulfed in the ecology of oil, according to a Penn State environmental historian. Now in the midst ...

Energy-efficient plastic production

Jun 01, 2010

Davide Crapanzano of the University of Twente (The Netherlands) has demonstrated the conditions under which a new catalytic membrane can be used for the cheaper, faster and more energy-efficient production of raw materials ...

Sound waves turn natural gas into liquid

Mar 06, 2007

Worldwide, 100 billion cubic meters of natural gas is wasted every year. Now, the Denver-based company Swift LNG aims to turn that gas into a usable liquid fuel with a thermoacoustic natural gas liquefaction technology just ...

Microbes convert 'Styrofoam' into biodegradable plastic

Feb 23, 2006

Bacteria could help transform a key component of disposable cups, plates and utensils into a useful eco-friendly plastic, significantly reducing the environmental impact of this ubiquitous, but difficult-to-recycle waste ...

Recommended for you

Australia approves huge India-backed mine

15 hours ago

Australia has given the go-ahead to a massive coal mine in Queensland state which Environment Minister Greg Hunt said Monday could ultimately provide electricity for up to 100 million Indians.

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ADEY
1 / 5 (4) Jun 11, 2010
the petrochemicals in cosmetic and other products are verey TOXIC. No one shoudl eat that stuff or put it onto their skin! I should be forbidden to be put into food or cosmetics. The organic movement is aware of that and organic products DO NOT contain ptrochemicals. It is possible to reduce the use of petrochemicals a lot, and people need to be more eduated and protected from toxic substances. This crisis should be an opportunity to come back to more earth friendly practices!!! Food and cosmetics existed before oil was available. Time to wake up!
Quantum_Conundrum
4.7 / 5 (3) Jun 11, 2010
Yeah, well, refrigerators, modern medical equipment, computers, air conditioners, etc, etc, all use oil.

Oh yes, the PETE and PTFE used in your "organic" greenhouses is also made from petroleum.

It is highly unlikely that any known technology would allow enough food to be produced, preserved, and shiped around the world without the use of plastics, as for example as I've mentioned many times before, greenhouses (PETE and PTFE) allow the production of as much as 15 times as much produce on the same size plot of land as compared to open fields.

In many cases there simply is no reasonable substitute for plastic. Neither metal nor wood nor glass can serve in so many of the roles plastic fills in modern civilization.

If we had a magic fairy wave a wand and make all automobiles and trains run on electricity powered by magnetic resonance, we'd still need nearly 75% of as much oil as we already use for the purpose of medicine, construction, and engineering and food preservation.
Sol
5 / 5 (1) Jun 12, 2010
All of you are forgetting bioplastics, biogas, biofuel, methane and fertilizer from your poop and all other organics. Recycled plastics into polymers back into the same type of petroplastics again and again. All or this is renewable and sustainable. Electric conversions for your car are just around the corner. Methane for electricity, cars, stoves, heating and cooling cheaper than petro without the toxic side affects. Hello renewables goodbye to you old fossils.
jerryd
not rated yet Jun 13, 2010
While it's true much is made from oil, that's only because oil is subsidized so much. And most that is made from oil can be made from biomass or coal or even air,CO2, RE and water and recycle them.

What we need is to put the full cost of oil, coal in them and very quickly things will change.

I drive EV's that get 600 and 250mpg equivalent that cost 25% of an ICE to run.

There are many solutions but as long as oil, coal is subsidized so heavily, it's an uphill battle.
Benbenben
not rated yet Jun 21, 2010
--'Prepare to give up my life style'-- ?!?!

You mean 'CHANGE'? That is so tedious, what is my other choice?

--'Acquiesce to the unavoidable self destructive nature of the human race culminating in the end much of the life on Earth and the end of human society as we know it.'

....well, on second thought, I really do like that first one.... It is so much more succinct (Occam's Razor and all).

Exit stage left to the Monty Python Chorus ...'ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE...."