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Petroleum Dependencies
Posted By Senator McCoy May 29 2008 06:03PM

So, do we really need all that petroleum from the oil sands? Many argue that we do not. To continue developing our oil resources, they say, only serves to perpetuate a western addiction for gas guzzling, ego satisfying SUVs, sprawling suburbs and big box retailers that discourage pedestrian traffic. But our petroleum dependencies go much deeper than that. Let's just pause for a moment to consider what our lives would be like without any petroleum products whatsoever. Imagine, if you will, what would happen tomorrow morning if, one by one, every item in your life that relied on oil and gas in its various forms magically disappeared....

So there you are, in front of the bathroom mirror about to brush your teeth ... woops, no toothbrush! Why not? Because the toothbrush is made from plastic, i.e., petroleum. No matter, you're a clever person and decide to plaster toothpaste on your finger instead, but alas your toothpaste also evaporates because it too contains petroleum products. Well, onwards and upwards. You proceed to get dressed. Foiled again ... your wool suit and cotton shirt sport a polyester blend and all your buttons, zippers and elastic bands contain products derived from petroleum. Take the poly blends out of your clothes and eliminate whatever convenient accessories hold your clothes together and, lo and behold, you're left with a pile of fabric on the floor instead of neatly arrayed about your person.

You grab your glasses to get a closer look at the evolving dilemma but they too melt away, since both light weight lens and frames require a plastics (petroleum) manufacturer. Looks like you'll need to get glass lenses.... But wait; all of a sudden your lights go out. Why? Well, electric wires are insulated using a petroleum based coating. Now the wires are bare and exposed, so the electricity has shorted out.

The story continues to unfold. Water is pouring everywhere because your house or apartment block is full of PVC pipe, another form of plastic. In fact, your appliances, furnishings, parts of your home, its paint - they've all vanished. You sneeze as you head out the door to drive to work, but the anithistimines are gone (yes, even some medicines rely on petroleum). Of course, your transportation fails (even if you had a full tank of gas) because all the grease and lubricants have been stripped away. The dashboard, carpet, tires and other interior fittings in your car are gone because, well, they're petroleum based.

Hmmmmm, you're in a bit of a pickle, it's going to take a little longer to get to work than you expected. Best grab the phone to call your boss. Regrettably, your cell has many plastic parts and is now a mere pile of metal, wire and chips in your hand. And on and on ... (let's hope you don't have a pacemaker!)

The fact is that petroleum and its many products are so fully integrated into our everyday lives that it's going to take a long time to wean ourselves from petroleum dependencies. And while it's true that we're profligate, energy efficiency and fuel switching will only take us so far. Add to that the growing demand for petroleum products among Asians, Eastern Europeans and Latin Americans working feverishly to achieve a better standard of living, and the time line is extended even further.

I'm not saying that nothing should be done to counteract the carbon culture we've been nurturing for the past 100 years. We could, and should, do better in the way we extract, process and consume petroleum products. Our current practices are definitely not sustainable. We need to find ways to optimize outcomes across all three dimensions - social, environmental and economic - as well as over time. The social dimension is particularly challenging. During our study tour, several groups shared their experiences of mounting social costs. Tomorrow, I'll continue this complex oil sands saga by trying to convey a little of how both individuals and communities are dealing with short and long term threats to their well being. Stay tuned....

Posted On Jul 29 12:27PM   

Wow -- that really does put the problem into perspective.  Plastics in particular: how did we live without them?

I guess when we seek out alternatives to oil, we need to seek out more than just fuel alternatives -- but alternatives for all the things we use petroleum for. 

What a big job this will be!  We need all our nations and all our great thinkers working on this, because it is not going to happen overnight.  Yet it needs to start!

Posted On May 30 12:33PM   

eeeek.  I have thought about buying local, and trying use steel water containers...  But wowzers!   There is a lot more to think about.

It seems that there is a potential for businesses to find alternatives. 

Posted On May 30 09:32AM   

To put things into perspective, though, only about 7 or 8 percent of all oil produced goes into those wonderful products you just listed.  The other 92% goes into FUEL.  Gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, heating oil, etc.

92 percent.  Cut that in half and we'd have enough oil for tooth brushes and artificial hips for the next millenium.

Of course there are alternatives to all of this, including petroleum plastics.  We've just been spoiled and haven't bothered looking.  It only took us a hundred years to re-build our entire civilization based on cheap oil - surely we're smart enough to re-build it again.

Posted On May 30 09:29AM   
It does beg the question though, if petroleum-based plastics had not been invented, would another, more natural-based technology have been invented to take its place? Humans are incredibly ingenious - when we have to be; and incredibly lazy - when we find something easy. Bioplastic is such an alternative, and is making an appearance via biodegradable plastic bags. Check out naturegirl, an Australian company.

Posted On May 29 07:43PM   
I look forward to hearing more about your tour.  Thinking about zippers and elastic waist bands helps to put things into perspective, though, I must say.  I suppose hearing aids, false teeth, new hip / knee joints and a dozen other aids for seniors like myself also fall into the positive side of the balance when you come right down to it.   Actually, almost all of our amazingly modern life and its accoutrements!  The big questions still remain though.  What are the costs in terms of people and plants and air quality?

Posted On May 29 06:38PM   

Antihistimines?  You've got to be kidding, I had no idea!  Actually, I hadn't thought much about any of the products side.  Except maybe plastic bags and bottles, but in those cases it's because I've heard about the land fill concerns or health effects.

I'm a bit overwhelmed, all in all.  It's hard enough to consider giving up driving or buying a new fuel efficient car & furnace.  But my cell phone too?  No way.

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