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June 25, 2011

Oil Oozes Through Your Life

Correction Appended

WHEN whales were an important energy source back in the 18th and 19th centuries, whalers
made sure to use every last part of each one, given how difficult they were to kill. The blubber
was boiled into oil for heat and light; the bones refashioned into women’s corsets; the teeth sold
for scrimshaw carvings; the sperm reserved for cosmetics and other uses. “Such a sweetener!
Such a softener! Such a delicious molifier!” — as Herman Melville’s narrator puts it in “Moby

Since petroleum replaced whale oil as a main fuel source more than a century ago, chemical
companies and refineries have found a startling range of uses for it, from asphalt to vanilla
flavoring in ice cream to pills from the drugstore. It has oozed into everyday life, so reducing
dependency is a more complicated proposition than some might think.

“It just turns out to be a very abundant product that is easy to manipulate chemically, so you
can turn it into many different products,” said Dr. Benny Freeman, past chairman of the
American Chemical Society’s polymeric materials division.

Take a typical barrel of oil. About 46 percent of it is refined into gasoline, and another 40
percent or so is turned into jet and fuel oil. Only about 2 percent becomes petrochemicals like
polyethylene and benzene for everyday products (with the rest going to other uses).

Yet that 2 percent has a pervasive reach, as suggested by the accompanying chart. “Oil, no pun
intended, seeps into just about everything in the economy,” said David Garfield, a managing
director at the consultancy AlixPartners. And though petrochemicals usually aren’t burned for 7/6/2011
Oil Oozes Through Your Life - Page 2 of 2

fuel, they share in the environmental impact of petroleum when extracted and refined using
energy-intensive methods.

When oil prices go up, as they have markedly in the past year, companies reassess how they
transport items, try to cut down on energy costs, and look for alternatives to petroleum-based
materials. For example, some are replacing the hard-to-open plastic clamshell packaging that
many consumers find so annoying. But, said Michael Pishko, head of the department of
chemical engineering at Texas A & M, there are only a few alternatives to petroleum-based
chemicals (one is natural gas as a base for polyethylene). “Beyond that, it becomes very difficult
to compete with petroleum, even petroleum at $100 a barrel,” Dr. Pishko said.

Michael Watts, a professor of geography and development studies at the University of

California at Berkeley, agreed. “The complexity of these hydrocarbons is sort of remarkable,” he
said. Even as a critic of oil dependency, he concedes that petroleum’s versatility is impressive:
Not only does the American farm and grocery network rely on cheap fuel for low-cost shipping
between the coasts, but food itself is grown using petroleum-based fertilizer. (Oil byproducts for
food typically fall under federal regulation, although that doesn’t satisfy critics of petroleum-
derived food colorings, for example.)

What will it take to wean us off oil? Professor Watts says the question forces scrutiny of “a very
complicated set of connections in which what we’re confronting, because of this dependency, is
not just, ‘Let’s develop a Prius.’ ”

Stephanie Clifford is a business reporter for The New York Times.

Correction: July 3, 2011

A news analysis article on June 26 about the pervasive reach of petroleum into everyday life
misstated a substance used in the 18th and 19th centuries to make cosmetics. It was spermaceti, a
waxy solid obtained from the oil of cetaceans and from the heads of sperm whales; it was not whale
sperm. 7/6/2011