Petroleum: A magnificent but much maligned resource

Despite attacks, petroleum is the foundation of prosperity in modern society.

Oil wells.
South Belridge oil field in California (Image by Antandrus)

CHICAGO, February 17, 2015 — In today’s society, the use of petroleum is under attack as never before. But contrary to the cries of critics, petroleum and the things people can do with petroleum constitute a modern miracle and a foundation of modern society.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations called for the world to move to “near zero emissions” of carbon dioxide by the year 2100. President Obama has threatened to veto the Keystone XL pipeline bill. Activist Bill McKibben has launched a national effort to persuade universities and colleges to divest financial holdings in oil companies. These efforts all target the oil industry with the aim of eliminating the use of petroleum by human societies.

But have you ever stopped to consider what petroleum products do for people each and every day?

Back in 1620, it took the 120 passengers and crew of the Mayflower 25 days to travel from England to what was eventually to become the United States of America. Two passengers died on the voyage, while the rest of the Pilgrims endured unimaginable hardships.

Today, a jumbo jet safely carries more than 300 passengers the same distance in less than seven hours. Each day, 25,000 commercial aircraft transport 9 million passengers a combined total of 10 billion miles, all of which are powered by aviation fuel derived from petroleum.

In the late 1800s, the horse-drawn carriage became a preferred mode of transportation in major cities. By 1890, the average New York citizen took 297 horse car rides per year. The 200,000 horses of New York deposited three to six million pounds of manure in stables and on city streets each day.

When the “horseless carriage” replaced the mess and smell of the horse-drawn carriage, many actually regarded the automobile as a pollution-control invention. Today, fuel from petroleum powers more than one billion automobiles across the world each day.

Historically, goods traded among societies were transported by camel, wagon, and sail. While trade has grown throughout history, the value of total world exports amounted to only about $10 billion per year in 1900, measured in today’s dollars.

Since 1900, world exports have exploded, increasing 1,800 times to a total of $18 trillion per year in 2013. Each day, more than 100 million tons of freight is carried by ship, train, truck,and plane, with more than 90 percent of this transport powered by fuel from petroleum.

Back in 1809, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France had a problem. When his armies marched across Europe, food supplies for his troops quickly spoiled. He offered a reward of 12,000 francs for a solution, which led to the invention of sterilized food sealed in tin cans. Prior to that innovation, food was “packaged” in animal skins, glass, paper, metal cans, and wooden crates.

Today, plastics derived from petroleum and other hydrocarbons provide safe, convenient and inexpensive packaging for food and other products. More than two million plastic bottles and 1.3 billion plastic bags are used each day globally.

Plastics derived from oil and natural gas play an essential role in modern medicine. Thousands of items, such as disposable catheters, surgical gloves, pharmaceutical drugs, hip implants and heart valves, bandages and various parts of lab equipment are plastic, made from petroleum and other hydrocarbons.

These and associated devices have become an integral part of the 500,000 in-patient surgeries performed across the world each day.

Just two hundred years ago, wood burning and human and animal muscle power provided more than 90 percent of society’s energy. Since 1800, global energy usage has increased by 26 times.

But today, more than 30 percent of the world’s energy is provided by petroleum and more than 80 percent is provided by coal, natural gas and oil. In 2015, we live in a golden age of low-cost energy.

Since 1800, global Gross Domestic Product has increased by a factor of 10, human life expectancy has more than doubled, and infant mortality is down by a factor of six. Since 1950, the years of education among world populations have more than doubled. In our golden age of hydrocarbon energy, people are wealthier, healthier, better educated, and enjoy more consumer goods and leisure time than during any era in recorded history.

Despite climate change warnings by the Obama administration and the United Nations, there is no hard evidence that carbon dioxide emissions from the petroleum industry have harmed a single person on Earth. Senior citizens continue to retire to southern states, disregarding foolish US government claims that warm climates are “dangerous.”

Unadulterated satellite data show that global temperatures have been flat for the last 18 years, that storms are neither stronger nor more numerous than those of past history, and that global sea ice extent remains at the 30-year average. Satellites further show that world vegetation has actually increased over the last 20 years. And today’s polar bear populations are double the levels of 1960.

Nor is there evidence that petroleum use is causing increasing pollution of Earth’s environment. Today, air and water pollution is declining in all major industrialized nations. Nations that use the most energy and petroleum have the best air and water quality and the best methods for handling waste disposal. Trends indicate that developing nations will also achieve declining pollution levels as their national incomes rise.

Tireless naysayers to the contrary, we are indeed fortunate to be living in a golden age of energy, fueled by petroleum.

Steve Goreham is Executive Director of the Climate Science Coalition of America and author of the book The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism:  Mankind and Climate Change Mania.

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Steve Goreham is a speaker, author, and researcher on environmental issues and a former engineer and business executive. He’s a frequently invited guest on radio and television as well as a freelance writer. He is the Executive Director of the Climate Science Coalition of America, a non-political association of scientists, engineers, and citizens working to inform Americans about the realities of climate science and energy economics. Steve is also author of two books on climate change, The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism: Mankind and Climate Change Mania and Climatism! Science, Common Sense, and the 21st Century’s Hottest Topic. Steve holds an MS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He has more than 30 years of experience at Fortune 100 and private companies in engineering and executive roles. As a white water kayaker, he paddled many of the great rivers of North America. He is a husband and father of three and resides in Illinois.
  • Steve, Fyi– the 1600 Mayflower voyage seems to have taken longer than 25 days.

  • Danceswithdachshunds

    Correct on every mark Steve. To tug on the “mindset” of progressives a little more, I’ve written many of the same things myself in comments of lib news but with the extra information to describe just how hard life was on us and animals before FF. For example, before IC engines and refrigeration there were horse drawn ice trucks that had to deliver ice to city dwellers and they had to supply the most ice during the hottest days of summer. Reports of horses dying in the streets of heat exhaustion were common back then. The teamsters unhitched them and simply left them lying there where they fell because there was no time to attend to them while ice was melting in the truck. Progressives who hate FF also then hate the horses that FF saved. Ditto that for people like day farm laborers who rushed to the coal mines to make way more money while the farms they used to tend became mechanized with tractors and harvesting machines.

    Another area I think you could consider including is how coal saved the forests. Not only was wood the primary source of heat for everyone prior to coal, wood was also the primary building material prior to coal. The combination of free market capitalism, coal and steam/electric power from FF are what led the way to CHEAP steel from visionaries like Andrew Carnegie. If coal never existed our forests would be barren right now. Another is how FF in the form of kerosene saved the whales from extinction.

    The next time you visit someone at a hospital and are riding up on an elevator with others always remember to remark – “Gee, I wonder what hospitals were like before electricity? One floor and very dark I suppose….?”

    • Danceswithdachshunds

      Oh, and I can confirm direct testimony that cities stank to high heaven from horse dung in the cities during the summer before FF. Back in the 60’s a great uncle of mine told me exactly that. He was then a retired Pittsburgh streetcar instructor who lived through the transition from horse to cable to electric transit power as an employee of the Consolidated Traction Company.

      • DavidAppell

        And who’s suggesting we go back to horse and buggies?

  • DavidAppell

    Goreham wrote:
    “Unadulterated satellite data show that global temperatures have been flat for the last 18 years,”

    As Goreham knowns — or certainly should know — that’s only one satellite dataset’s results (RSS). The UAH group, measuring the same thing, finds +0.18 C (+0.33 F) of warming in that time period.

    I wonder why he didn’t mention it? Or that RSS covers less of the polar regions than UAH, and that they need to correct for a decaying satellite via a climate model.

  • Johnstoirvin

    “Plastics derived from oil and natural gas play an essential role in modern medicine.”

    Not only that, but many of the important medicines we depend on today are derived from petroleum products. In fact, if you google it, you will find an incomplete list of about 6,000 products we use every day which are also derived from oil and gas based products. Ignorance of what is created from oil, and of what we would be missing if oil was removed from our lives, is what allows the multitudes of ignoramuses to call for a ban on its use.