I know the media has been focusing a lot on oil lately, and understandably so given prices at the gas pump. But often overlooked is oil’s broader use throughout our economy – in often surprising ways. Put simply, oil is fundamental to almost every aspect of modern life.
In addition to producing gasoline and other transportation fuels, oil is used to make an array of products essential to the way we live – everything from life-saving medical equipment to the plastics used in computers and cell phones.
First, a few facts: Gasoline accounts for less than one half of the products made from a barrel of crude in the United States. Roughly another third goes to making the diesel and jet fuels that power commercial transportation and personal travel.
So what about the rest of the barrel?
Oil is an important source of raw materials for making plastics and other chemical products. When crude is refined, two of the products that result from additional chemical processing are ethylene and propylene; these petrochemicals are the building blocks of modern plastics.
Lightweight and versatile, plastics have become ubiquitous in the home (appliances, toys, flooring), in the workplace (computers, desks, carpeting) and on the road (plastics make up about 50 percent of the volume of cars, although they account for only about 10 percent of the weight, according to the American Chemistry Council).
Crude oil is also the source for aromatic fluids, which are raw materials used in a wide variety of products – everything from dyes and synthetic detergents to the polyurethanes used in athletic shoes and furniture to the polyesters used in fabrics and beverage containers.
It would be difficult to overstate the role that petrochemicals have played in achieving the quality of life we enjoy today. Modern healthcare would be impossible without medical products made from petrochemicals – such as disposable syringes, catheters and blood bags, as well as artificial joints used in hip and knee replacements. Even common hand sanitizers are 65 percent petrochemicals.
Cell phones and smart phones wouldn’t exist without components made from oil. These modern electronics contain plastics derived from petrochemicals.
As the National Academy of Engineering once put it, “The products from petrochemicals have played as great a role in shaping the modern world as gasoline and fuel oils have in powering it.”
Here are some other ways that Americans use crude oil:
- As a home heating oil. Roughly one in 10 U.S. homes uses heating oil – also called fuel oil – to keep their homes warm in cold weather.
- As a lubricant. Crude oil is used to make lubricants for car engines and other kinds of motors and moving parts in U.S. homes and businesses. In fact, proper function of wind turbines depends on lubricants made from petrochemicals and oil.
- To make asphalt. Crude oil is the main ingredient in asphalt, which is used to make roads and roofing materials.
- As an energy source for manufacturing. Another product made from crude oil is petroleum coke, which can be used as a fuel for U.S. industries such as steelmaking. It also is used to make electrodes and charcoal.
I have only scratched the surface of products that are made from crude oil. Crayons, car tires, cosmetics … the list goes on.
In just these few examples, you can see why oil is referred to as the “lifeblood” of the U.S. economy. It powers not just our cars, but also our commercial transportation. It heats homes, keeps industries running and paves our roads. It is an essential ingredient in the products of modern chemistry that keep us healthy, safe and productive.
The importance of this discussion is more than just an interesting “did you know,” however. Policy decisions made about access, taxes and regulations for the oil industry also affect our ability to supply affordable and reliable raw materials for products consumers use everyday.
So, when some politicians, celebrities and even other companies talk about getting “off oil,” I hope they realize what that would really mean for our way of life – because it might make them think twice.