In my position as a university lecturer, a parent and as a friend to many younger people, it is clear that a large portion believe that fossil fuels are bad.
A hardly surprising finding given the numerous media reports on the climate emergency resulting from anthropogenic production of greenhouse gases. Most of society now knows that a large proportion of greenhouse gas production is a consequence of burning fossil fuels.
The ‘fossil fuels are bad’ mindset has led to oil and gas becoming a toxic brand in the eyes of many. A US, Ernst and Young report exemplified this with the following findings;
Indeed some commentators are likening the oil and gas industry to tobacco. This must be a very concerning analogue for oil and gas executives.
Whilst I understand and support the energy transition away from fossil fuels, is oil and gas production per se such a bad thing? Let us remind ourselves of the benefits from non-energy products derived from oil and gas.
A huge range of plastic types is produced from petrochemicals. Despite recent media condemnation of plastics, not all plastics are bad. Micro-plastics, single use plastics and some plastic disposal practices are undesirable but take a look around a hospital, a wind turbine blade, medical implants, insulation to reduce energy use and all electronic devices – plastic is an extremely useful material which benefits society in an enormous range of applications.
Hydrogen derived from natural gas is combined with nitrogen to make almost all of the ammonia used industrially. A large proportion of ammonia is used as the nitrogen source in fertilisers.
Other important uses of ammonia include household and industrial cleaning products, refrigerants, and in the manufacturing of plastics, dyes and explosives.
Many pharmaceuticals are made from petrochemical derivatives. Phenol and Cumene are used for manufacturing penicillin and aspirin. Resins made from petrochemicals are used in the manufacture of drugs for AIDS, arthritis, and cancer. Polymers are used to make pill capsules and coatings. Time-release drugs rely on a tartaric acid-based polymer that slowly dissolves, administering a controlled dose of medication. Petroleum jelly was first marketed over 150 years ago and is still widely used today for skin care.
Acrylics, nylon and polyesters manufactured from oil products have numerous beneficial uses.
Road construction makes extensive use of bitumen/asphalt derived from petroleum.
Sulphur is common to many compounds found in oil and natural gas. Sulphur compounds extracted from oil and gas are used to make sulphuric acid, a key chemical in the production of fertilisers. It is also used in making sulphate salts, synthetic detergents, dyes and pigments, explosives, and drugs.
Helium is an important industrial gas with a wide variety of applications in aircraft, aerospace, electronics, and advanced metallurgy. A large proportion of its production is from natural gas. An important use of liquid helium is to cool magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners.
There are a range of other uses for oil and gas products and you can see why many commentators ask – aren’t hydrocarbons too valuable to burn?
It strikes me that the oil and gas industry has to move focus to the non-fuel benefits of oil and gas as the energy transition to net zero progresses. For the large proportion of oil and gas that we do burn – gasoline, kerosene, diesel, fuel oil – can we find alternative uses for these refinery products?
Could we use them as feedstock for other chemical processes? Perhaps we have to recognise that ‘keep it in the ground’ is too limiting.
Oil and gas provides society with a huge range of non-fuel benefits that we will continue to require up to net zero and beyond. Rather than ‘keep it in the ground’ perhaps it should be ‘oil and gas is too valuable to burn’.