Petroleum and Pragmatism – Part 2

Last week’s post, Part 1 of Petroleum and Pragmatism, offered a zoomed out view of petroleum consumption as it affects the U.S. and the world, today and for the next several years. This post, Part 2, zooms in on petroleum, greenhouse gases and, as a consequence, the continuing debate on climate change.

Petroleum and the Transportation Sector

Petroleum provided about 28% of the primary fuel consumed in the U.S. in 2013. The great majority (about 90%) of that was used in the transportation sector. Petroleum derived fuels, especially gasoline, diesel fuel and jet aircraft fuel, offer a combination of physical properties that are especially desirable for mobile applications.

AEO 2015 Fig 10The chart labeled “Figure 10” is from the Annual Energy Outlook – 2015, [1] published by the U.S. Government Department of Energy in April 2015. Figure 10 breaks out energy consumption by mode of transportation. As you can see, light-duty vehicles (cars and light trucks), heavy-duty vehicles (primarily heavy trucks) and aircraft, taken together, accounted for 88% of energy use in the transportation sector in 2013.

Please notice that projected percentages for 2040 indicate both a substantial reduction in energy consumption for light-duty vehicles and an increase in heavy-duty vehicle fuel consumption. Also notice that the total energy consumed by the transportation sector is almost unchanged between 2013 and 2040 (energy use equivalent to 13.8 million barrels of petroleum per day in 2013, declining only slightly to 13.5 million barrels per day in 2040).

Petroleum, Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change

Petroleum derived fuels are close to 100% hydrocarbons, so greenhouse gas emissions from petroleum derived fuels — mostly carbon dioxide (CO2) – are just about directly proportional to petroleum consumption. Greenhouse gases are regarded as the primary driver of the climate change and its negative effects, as projected for coming years. In order to abate the dangers associated with climate change, President Obama has proposed to reduce America’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 25% – 28% by 2028.

AEO 2015 Fig 37The chart labeled “Figure 37” indicates total greenhouse gas emissions by sector for 2005 and 2013, along with projections for 2025 and 2040. Clearly, the emissions from the Transportation sector will need to decline much more than Figure 37 indicates.

Here are some comments on the obvious discrepancy between the President’s proposal and the figures presented in the Annual Energy Outlook – 2015:

>> The projections presented in Figure 10 and Figure 37 reflect the Annual Energy Outlook’s Reference Case. The Reference Case extrapolates historical data in light of demographic projections, macroeconomic projections and regulations in place prior to publication. Anticipated technical breakthroughs and regulations not yet finalized are not considered in the Reference Case. As examples: (1) The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations for light-duty vehicles are included and timely compliance is assumed (roughly 5% decrease in fuel consumption per model year through model year 2025). (2) New heavy-duty vehicle fuel economy standards proposed for years following 2018 are not final, hence are not considered.

>> Most, if not all major light-duty vehicle manufacturers have included diesel engines in their CAFE standards compliance plans. Volkswagen’s recent emissions problem with diesel engines and France’s decision to de-emphasize diesel engines in light-duty vehicles cast doubts on the future market acceptance of diesel powered light-duty vehicles. [2]

>> Electric vehicles, hybrids and bio-fuel powered vehicles are the only practical and available alternatives to petroleum fueled light-duty vehicles that come to mind. Electric vehicles, like those offered by Nissan, BMW and Tesla, if manufactured and sold in sufficient numbers, would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I personally don’t like hybrids – given an adequate recharging infrastructure, I don’t see any advantage compared to all electric vehicles. I’m also less than enthusiastic about bio-fuels for light-duty vehicles. Toyota has introduced a fuel-cell powered light-duty vehicle – I admire Toyota, but I have not seen much action toward the necessary refueling infrastructure.

>> For heavy-duty vehicles, natural gas is my first choice. Natural gas is significantly cleaner than diesel fuel, emits less greenhouse gas than diesel fuel, and is readily available from domestic sources. The necessary refueling infrastructure is increasing daily.

>> As everyone has noticed, the price of gasoline has dropped by almost half over the last year or so. The operating economics of vehicles using $2.10 per gallon gasoline are hard to match – or even approach — with any other practical and available technology.

The advent of “fracking”, the migration of some non-transportation uses to natural gas and the discovery of new and extensive petroleum sources financed through years of high petroleum prices are all conspiring to keep petroleum prices low for the reasonably foreseeable future.

At the same time, cheap gasoline can be expected to motivate buyers to choose larger, more fuel hungry vehicles. Cheap gasoline can be expected to encourage people to drive more. Additionally, cheap gasoline can be expected to promote demand for more vehicles.

All of this means more greenhouse gas emissions, not less.

For Smaller Manufacturers

Look for several years of cheap petroleum products. If you have made greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments, take another look at how those reductions will be accomplished.


Chuck - Vancouver3Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

P.S: Contact me when your organization is serious about pursuing Sustainability … CH

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published weekly.


[1] The Annual Energy Outlook – 2015 is available for free download at www.eia.gov

[2] For more on VW, France and diesel engines see The Diesel Dilemma, this blog, http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2015/10/10/the-diesel-dilemma/