Petroleum is a liquid mix of hydrocarbons. Found in certain rock strata, it is possible to extract this liquid and then refine it so that it can be used as a fuel. Kerosene, gasoline, and oil come from petroleum. It is thick, flammable, and can also be turned into various raw materials through derivative products. Everything from asphalt to paraffin wax can be created from petroleum.
Definitions of petroleum are created based on the viscosity and weight of the liquid. This is how the terms light, intermediate, or heavy are used. When petroleum is found without sulfur, then it is referred to as sweet. When there is sulfur present, the final product is referred to as sour.
One of the most popular commodities that provides fuel for our lifestyles today is light sweet crude, which is petroleum that abides by the described characteristics in its name.
The advantages and disadvantages of petroleum take us to two extremes. On one hand, much of our global society is powered by this resource. On the other hand, we could be creating long-term damage to our planet by using this resource as often as we do.
What Are the Advantages of Petroleum?
1. Petroleum is extremely easy to extract.
Although petroleum is found in rock strata, accessing this resource is rather simple. Various methods can be used to drill into the rock layer and then pump out the petroleum so it can be refined in the future. Even when the reserves of petroleum are located deep underground or underneath an ocean floor, modern technology allows us to access these fuel resources for the benefit of society.
2. It is a high-density fuel.
Petroleum isn’t the highest density fuel resource on our planet, but it is one of the best. When petroleum is refined and combusted, it generates a power ratio of 1:10,000. It only takes a small amount of fuel to create a substantial amount of energy. The fuels can then be turned into resources that allows us to operate everything from vehicles to lawn mowers.
3. Petroleum can be transported over long distances.
When petroleum is extracted, the liquid form is easy to move from location to location because of its viscosity. Transportation networks that include pipelines, trucking, and tanker-based shipping can quickly bring petroleum from one part of the world to another. The world’s longest crude pipeline extends more than 2,300 miles, running from Edmonton to Montreal, with a stop-over in Chicago.
4. It provides a fuel that works with our infrastructure.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 17th century, societies have built their infrastructures around the massive energy potential that petroleum is able to provide. With more than two centuries of innovation focused on this technology, petroleum gives us a fuel that works with this infrastructure with a high level of efficiency. Cleaner energy technologies may exist, but not all of them can integrate into this network.
5. It can be used in a wide variety of ways.
We know that petroleum can create fuels for transportation. It also creates fuels that are used to heat homes and businesses. The fuels can be combusted to generate electricity. We build roads with what petroleum can provide. Plastics, chemicals, and other synthetic materials are created with petroleum. According to Ranken Energy, more than 6,000 items, from ballpoint pens to bandages are created with this natural resource.
6. Petroleum provides a stable energy resource.
Although renewable energy resources are cleaner, they are not constant. Solar and wind are not 24/7 power producers, but petroleum can be used around the clock. To create solar and wind energy, petroleum products are required anyway. We wouldn’t even have many renewable energy resources if we didn’t have petroleum technologies.
What Are the Disadvantages of Petroleum?
1. Combustion contributes dangerous gasses to the environment.
Petroleum, when it is combusted, generates high levels of carbon dioxide. Methane and other greenhouse gasses can be produced as well, depending on how the petroleum has been refined. Traces of sulfur enter the atmosphere as well, even when the petroleum is classified as being sweet. This may be a contributing factor to environmental changes that have been observed since the 1970s.
2. Petroleum is a finite resource.
Petroleum is a fossil fuel, so it is a resource that has limitations. We do keep finding new deposits of petroleum to exploit, which provides new reserves for us to stockpile, but at some point, those reserves may run out. Some estimations suggest that two-thirds of the world’s petroleum resources may have already been used.
3. The refinement process of petroleum can be toxic.
Petroleum on its own can be lethal to all forms of life in some way. At just 0.4% concentration levels, it is lethal to fish. The benzene that is present in crude oil and the fuels refined from it is a known carcinogen. Exposure to petroleum lowers white blood cell counts in humans, which makes them more susceptible to illnesses. Research from La Leva di Archimede suggests it may take just 5 years of exposure in just a few parts per billion to terminal cancers and immune system diseases.
4. Petroleum can be a trigger for acid rain.
When petroleum combusts, it creates a high temperature impact with the surrounding air. That causes the nitrogen in the atmosphere to oxidize. Nitrous oxide, when combined with the sulfur content that is found in petroleum, can combine with atmospheric moisture to create acid rain. When it falls, acid rain can create acidic waters in lakes, ponds, and rivers. Even coral reefs can be directly affected by acid rain when it falls.
5. Petroleum transportation isn’t 100% safe.
Business Insider reports that more than 9 million gallons of petroleum have spilled from US transportation networks from 2010-2016. More than 1,300 total spills occurred during that period, which equates to one spill every 2 days. More than 73,000 miles of pipeline transport petroleum every day, plus more is transported by tankers and trains.
6. It is a commodity that is exploited for political purposes.
The value of petroleum makes it a resource that every side of the political spectrum rainbow attempts to exploit. Nations go to war over petroleum resources. Terrorists attempt to sabotage petroleum networks. Dictators can take control over a nation’s resources, amass billions or trillions in funds, and then use that value to violently suppress people.
The advantages and disadvantages of petroleum show us that we can still rely on this important natural resource, but we must continue to innovate. Clean capture technologies can limit many of the negatives, while improved maintenance and supervision of transportation networks could prevent leaks. Petroleum can be used to fuel our future, but only if we take these key points seriously.