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Oil Slick: The Ugly Truth About Petroleum

By Benjamin Kahane


Petroleum — or, plainly, oil — has many applications in the industrial age. Petroleum is used to make plastics, lubricants, wax, asphalt and many other industrial products, but it’s mostly used for fuel. Oil is usually black or dark brown before any refinement; however, it also can be found in the form of tar shale, as in Colorado and Utah, and tar sands, as in Alberta, Canada. Tar-shale oil and tar-sands oil are more energy-intensive to extract, but as oil prices go up, the choice to extract those natural resources is becoming an economic reality. Climatologist Dr. James Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, warns that fully exploiting Canadian tar sands and U.S. tar shale will more than double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere — what he calls “game over for the climate.”


Petroleum must be refined before Americans can use it for power. By volume, 84 percent of the hydrocarbons in petroleum are converted into fuels, including petrol, diesel, jet, heating, and other fuel oils. The other 16 percent is used for the industrial products listed above. Lighter-based oils are best for converting petroleum to fuel, but as the world’s reserves of light and medium oil are depleted, refineries must come up with better ways to distil heavy oil into the fuels that we use.


In the United States, we use fuel from petroleum almost exclusively in the transportation sector. The fact that a mere 1 percent of petroleum is used in electricity generation makes it hard to monitor the pollution emissions from oil; it is much easier to monitor the combustion byproducts of a stationary power plant than the pollutants expelling from millions of different types of transportation vehicles. There are numerous environmental impacts from the burning of petroleum, most notably, the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which has been directly linked to climate change.


If the petroleum is “sour” instead of “sweet,” that means it has a larger percentage of sulfur content. If the sulfur is not completely removed from the rest of the contents of the oil, the combustion of that oil will result in sulfur-oxide byproducts. Sulfur dioxide is a major air pollutant and has significant negative impacts on human health. There are other potential environmental pitfalls to the use of petroleum fuel: The extraction of petroleum can be disruptive to the natural habitat, and has the potential to be very environmentally damaging.  If the extraction is based offshore and anything goes wrong, a massive spill could occur, damaging natural ecosystems, as occurred recently with the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil spills are a concern during its transportation as well.  Oil tankers have historically had accidents, such as the Exxon Valdez disaster, spilling anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand tons of oil into the ocean.


Viable alternatives to oil require more investment. There is promise of cleaner burning fuel in hydrogen-powered vehicles, but the technology is still being developed and the petroleum-fuel infrastructure is very much embedded into our lifestyle. The use of biofuels, created from plants such as corn, soy and sugar cane, has grown to become a relatively popular substitute for petroleum-based fuel, but its production competes with our food supply. Grown on the sea instead of on land, algae offers a potential solution as a biofuel because its cultivation would not compete with our food supply, but much research and development remains to be done in order for algae to become a viable alternative fuel.


The best way to transition from oil to a cleaner energy source may be to convert our electric grid to being powered by renewable fuels and switch to battery-powered cars that would be charged from the renewable-energy electric grid.




Benjamin Kahane is a utility-scale project engineer at SunEdison, where he designs photovoltaic solar-energy systems. He earned his master’s degree in sustainable-energy engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.

This piece is part of the Jewish Energy Guide, published in partnership with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.




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