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Oil's Products

For those who only associate oil with petrol, this page lists just some of the countless uses for that astonishing black liquid.

Transport

Petrol and diesel are probably the first things that spring to mind when one thinks of the uses of oil. Because of its liquid nature and the power/mass ratio, there is nothing else that can easily replace oil. Cars can be adjusted to run on electricity or hydrogen but these are wasteful of energy and unsuited to the future. Road transport can replaced to a certain extent with public transport and oils from plants, and ships could reduce their energy usage by modern sails. The biggest problem is with aircraft which cannot use alternatives like electricity. Along with their excessive consumption, this will be one of the first to be cut back.

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Electricity Generation

About 42% of primary energy (oil, natural gas, coal) is used to generate electricity and if oil is our society’s lifeblood, then electricity is its oxygen. As seen by the blackouts in east USA and Canada in August 2003, even a few days without electricity and we grind to a halt. There are alternative ways of generating electricity but these make up only a small amount of electricity sources at the moment (see Chart S1), over three-quarters comes from oil, gas and coal. Hydroelectric is limited by availability of water and nuclear power is out of favour. The only option left is renewables and these are many years away from being developed enough. We should have been pouring money into research in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Farming

One important use for oil which many people are unaware of is agriculture, and not just to fuel tractors and combine harvesters. Fertilisers and herbicides are oil- and gas-based, and farmers use animal feeds that come from around the world.

The example of North Korea shows us what happens to agriculture when oil products are removed. After the Korean war, it had developed a modern farming system depending on machinery and oil-based fertilisers. After the Soviet Union fell, Communist aid to the country stopped and they were unable to purchase oil and supplies. Without oil, farm machinery was sitting idle (80% of its capacity by 1998) and large proportions of the population had to return to agriculture. Unfortunately the soil had been drained of nutrients over the years and, without fertilisers, it was unable to produce the same output as before. Crop yields fell by 60% over the period 1989-1998. Unless it can get access to oil and fertilisers again, the population will decline until it reaches a sustainable level.

This is such as important aspect that I have gone into more detail on the Agriculture page.

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Plastics

It is often forgotten by many people that plastic products are based on petroleum. A glance around any room will show how pervasive they are. There are many other oil-based household objects. The following is a list of just some products that may disappear with oil.

Air conditioners, ammonia, anti-histamines, antiseptics, artificial turf, asphalt, aspirin, balloons, bandages, boats, bottles, bras, bubble gum, butane, cameras, candles, car batteries, car bodies, carpet, cassette tapes, caulking, CDs, chewing gum, cold, combs/brushes, computers, contacts, cortisone, crayons, cream, denture adhesives, deodorant, detergents, dice, dishwashing liquid, dresses, dryers, electric blankets, electrician’s tape, fertilisers, fishing lures, fishing rods, floor wax, footballs, glues, glycerin, golf balls, guitar strings, hair, hair colouring, hair curlers, hearing aids, heart valves, heating oil, house paint, ice chests, ink, insect repellent, insulation, jet fuel, life jackets, linoleum, lip balm, lipstick, loudspeakers, medicines, mops, motor oil, motorcycle helmets, movie film, nail polish, oil filters, paddles, paint brushes, paints, parachutes, paraffin, pens, perfumes, petroleum jelly, plastic chairs, plastic cups, plastic forks, plastic wrap, plastics, plywood adhesives, refrigerators, roller-skate wheels, roofing paper, rubber bands, rubber boots, rubber cement, rubbish bags, running shoes, saccharine, seals, shirts (non-cotton), shoe polish, shoes, shower curtains, solvents, spectacles, stereos, sweaters, table tennis balls, tape recorders, telephones, tennis rackets, thermos, tights, toilet seats, toners, toothpaste, transparencies, transparent tape, TV cabinets, typewriter/computer ribbons, tyres, umbrellas, upholstery, vaporisers, vitamin capsules, volleyballs, water pipes, water skis, wax, wax paper

Of course, these products will not all disappear with the decline of oil – some existed before plastic was even discovered. Boats, for instance, were made of wood for thousands of years but their construction requires for more skill than glassfibre and maintenance is higher. And all that extra wood will have to be grown somewhere. Remember that, a hundred years ago before oil dominated society, the world population was 1.6 billion as against today's 6.5 billion. We also owned far less and prices of goods were generally higher (allowing for inflation). We are used to everything being cheap and freely available. Like oil itself, it is not that these things will disappear but that their costs will soar. Our present lifestyle will inevitably change.

 

Contents

Transport

Electricity generation

Farming

Plastics

 

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