When I heard Joe Biden say in a presidential debate that he wants to “transition away” from petroleum by 2050, I wish I was there to respond. Here’s what I would have said: “We have to make stuff, Joe!”

Here’s an “inconvenient truth” for the renewable-energy crowd: Fossil fuels (oil, gas/LNG, and coal) are used for much more than just energy. Short of combustion and a flame, they have important non-energy uses… billions of tons per year worth worldwide. They are used to make stuff.

These uses are categorized as industrial uses. Several critical industrial uses of fossil fuels are:

  1. Synthetic polymers and chemicals
  2. Lubricants
  3. Dyes and colorants
  4. Pavement
  5. Helium production
  6. Pharmaceuticals

Part I today covers the first four; Part II tomorrow covers helium production and pharmaceuticals, and concludes with a discussion of natural materials.

Unfortunately, when compared to the above fossil fuel-based materials, the “natural” materials the Far Left proposes are far more environmentally inferior, if not destructive. Drawbacks include:

  • Millions of acres of forest and prairie will be converted to crops and pasture to achieve the transition from synthetics to plant- and animal-based fibers and leathers.
  • Millions of tons of soil erosion, fertilizer application, and pesticide application will result from the massive increase in agriculture.
  • Extensive new irrigation projects will be needed to grow all those crops, dewatering rivers and depleting groundwater sources.
  • Millions more acres of forests will be cut for lumber and paper production.
  • Mountains will fall to mine and quarry metal and stone “naturals.”

In addition, the only viable source of the critical element helium is natural gas processing.

Let’s evaluate the above six industrial uses of oil, gas, and coal fossil fuels, four today and two tomorrow.


Plastic is probably are the first material that comes to most people’s minds in this regard. As much as people love to hate plastic, it’s the least environmentally destructive material for many millions of tons per year of its uses.

But consider that plastics are just one of the many uses of synthetic polymers and chemicals. Among their most important applications are:

  • Three-dimensional parts (plastic parts)
  • Paints and coatings
  • Sheet goods
  • Fibers
  • Carbon-fiber/resin matrix
  • Packaging
  • Fertilizer and pest control products

The majority of synthetic polymers in the U.S. are derived from natural gas liquids (NGLs–which are hydrocarbons that rise from the earth with natural gas), and to a lesser extent, petroleum.

  1. Plastic Parts

Over the past century, plastic has replaced a variety of “natural” materials for three-dimensional parts. Among the most important are wood, metal, glass, ceramics, and stone. Because plastics display various combinations of the attributes toughness, light weight, rot-resistance, and easily machined or molded into intricate shapes, there often is no viable alternative among the “natural” materials.

On a performance basis, bioplastics are not currently viable as replacements for fossil-fuel plastics, but that is a good thing because bioplastics are far more environmentally unsound.

2. Paints and Coatings

Before the dawn of synthetic polymers such as acrylic, polyurethane, and epoxy; paints and coatings were primarily produced from the agricultural crop linseed oil (paint and varnish) and insect-shell-derived shellac (lacquer). It is important to note that a huge increase in the production of protective paints and coatings will be required if wood replaces plastic for three-dimensional parts.

3. Sheet Goods

Synthetics have replaced glass, tile, leather, and plant-based materials in a variety of applications including windows (acrylic), roofing (asphalt shingles), footwear (vinyl, polyester), and flooring (wood, clay tile, stone, plant- and animal-fiber carpets, and linoleum produced from linseed oil.)

4. Fibers

Synthetic fibers have replaced a large portion of the cotton, linen, wool, hemp, hair, fur, and steel previously used to create clothing, upholstery, carpet, rope, cable, and more.

5. Carbon-fiber/Resin Matrices

There is no “natural” alternative here.

Carbon fiber is made of carbon; the current source is fossil fuels. A proposed alternate source of this carbon is biomass. Biomass that is used for carbon fiber cannot be returned to the soil as organic conditioner and fertilizer. Rich farmland will turn to wasteland if enough biomass is removed to produce carbon fiber and all the other “green” uses the Left has planned for it.

Another proposed source for carbon is algae. There are so many reasons this is not feasible that they cannot all be discussed here. Suffice it to say that if it was feasible, it would have been done on an industrial scale by now, after nearly 60 years and billions of dollars in research spending.

Carbon-fiber materials make planes and automobiles much lighter, resulting in far less energy consumption than if they were made of steel or aluminum.

6. Packaging

As much as the Left loves to ban plastic shopping bags, they are only a small part of the overall packaging uses of plastics. Lightweight plastic bags and bottles for packaged food and beverages have saved enormous amounts of energy that would have otherwise been used to transport the heavy steel, aluminum, and glass packaging they replaced.

Many on the Left decry packaged foods–of course without considering the consequences. If we go all fresh, forest and prairie will be torn up for farmland to replace the spoilage that will result.

In an extensive 2012 study, the USDA estimated that spoilage of fresh vegetables in food stores exceeds 1 of every 9 pounds. For fresh fruits, loss rates range from 4% for bananas to 20% for apples, 33% for pineapples, and 43% for papayas. Loss in food stores for fresh meat, poultry, and seafood ranges from 6% for turkey to 24 % for shellfish.

This does not even include loss from spoilage in restaurants and homes.

The plastic wrap and zipper bags we use to protect foods at home would most likely have to be replaced by waxed paper, which easily tears and is difficult for consumers to seal. Currently, the wax for waxed paper comes from petroleum. Where would all the natural alternatives come from?

7. Fertilizer and Pest Control

Large-volume production of nitrogen fertilizer uses natural gas as a primary raw material. There simply is not enough compost or manure available as an alternative to synthetic fertilizers– especially once the Far Left gets rid of those methane-flatulent, global-warming cows.

Pest-control agents are mainly derived from fossil fuels as well.

Pest-control products include insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, and the like. “Natural” insecticides are largely plant-based. If we eliminate synthetic insecticides, we will have to grow vast fields of plants to produce natural insecticides. These fields will in turn require natural fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide. In an endless cycle, the plants from those fields would be harvested and sent to processing factories to yield “natural” fertilizers and pesticides. That is known as a negative feedback loop.


Next, let’s take a look a look at lubricants, an essential for greasing all those spinning windmill blades and electric-car wheels. The petroleum-based lubricants of today have almost completely replaced the plant- and animal-based lubricants of yesteryear. Again: Where will all of those plants and animals come from when we switch back to them?


Synthetic dyes and colorants are largely produced from coal tar and other fossil-fuel derivatives. Previously, dyes and colorants came from things like minerals, roots, vegetables, flowers, insects, walnut shells, wood, and even mollusk shells. Most of these produced muted colors or colors that were not very colorfast or fade resistant compared to synthetics. And again: Where will all of those minerals, plants and animals come from when we switch back to them?


This is a big one.

The two most common paving materials used in the world today are hot mix asphalt (HMA) and Portland cement concrete (PCC). HMA is made from sand, gravel, and about 5% by weight of a hydrocarbon binder called asphalt. Asphalt is a byproduct of petroleum refining for gasoline production. PCC is made from sand, gravel, and a binder called Portland cement that is produced from limestone and clay.

HMA is by far the most common paving material in use today. About 420 million tons (840 billion lbs.) of HMA paving material was produced in the U.S. in 2019. Of the 2.8 million miles of surfaced roads in the U.S, 94% are paved with HMA. Also, 80% of the 3,300 airport runways in the U.S are paved with HMA.

That’s an awful lot of asphalt paving to replace with concrete paving–its only viable alternative–especially when you consider the massive amounts of CO2 that are emitted in producing the Portland cement used in PCC.

The production of PCC emits over 10 times more CO2 per ton than HMA (0.1073 ton of CO2 per ton of PCC vs. 0.0103 ton of CO2 per ton of HMA.) This difference is primarily because the limestone (calcium carbonate) used to produce Portland cement must crushed and then heated with clay to over 2,500 °F in order to drive off CO2 as a step in producing Portland cement.

According to the National Precast Concrete Association, the production of the Portland cement contained in 3,900 lbs. (one cubic yard) of PCC is responsible for about 400 lbs. of COemissions. So, if the 420 million tons of HMA used in the U.S. is replaced by PCC, then the increase in CO2 emissions in the U.S. will be 40.7 million tons each year.

Looking at this globally: The worldwide use of HMA in 2020 is estimated at 1.9 billion tons (3.8 trillion lbs.) So, the global CO2 emissions increase due to a switch from asphalt to concrete paving would be 187 million tons (375 billion lbs.).

And consider this: Over 99% of HMA paving is ground up, re-heated, and recycled into new pavement when past its original useful life. This is not true of concrete; new material must be used.

But could there be hope on the horizon for reducing CO2 emission from PCC production?

Well, a California company has developed a process for making PCC that is carbon neutral or even carbon negative. The company plans to capture the massive CO2 emissions from Portland cement production and use that to create artificial aggregate (gravel). This artificial gravel is made of calcium carbonate–the same as the limestone gravel currently used in PCC. The company has a convenient source of carbon for the carbonate portion of their calcium carbonate gravel: all that CO2 captured from the production of Portland cement.

To make the artificial calcium carbonate gravel the company also needs a source of calcium. For this they plan to take recycled concrete and extract calcium from the limestone it contains. That sounds wonderful.

But only in theory.

Remember that 94% of roads and 80% of runways are paved with asphalt. This means that there is simply not enough recyclable concrete in existence to yield enough calcium to make a dent in the increased CO2 emissions that would result from a switch to PCC. To make up the massive calcium deficit, the only viable source is natural limestone.

Thus, large-scale use of the California company’s process would require mining calcium carbonate in the form of limestone, hauling it to a facility, and using it to obtain calcium. The company would then take that calcium and turn it right back into calcium carbonate (limestone) using their process. Yes, reader, you are correct… that could be used as the definition of insanity.


Steven Overholt has a bachelor of science degree with a double-major in chemistry and biology. He holds six U.S. patents and is author of Mastering Technology Commercialization, Inventions, Patents, Markets, Money (2013).

The post Can-do Petroleum vs. Can’t Do Renewables (Part I) appeared first on Master Resource.

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August 26, 2021 By Steve Overholt