Earth: the new Venus
November 12, 2012 10:54 PM   Subscribe

So, what is the most oil-dependent thing that most people do / western lifestyle choice? How do we discourage that thing / encourage an alternative?

Given that the US is set to become the #1 oil producer on the back of the the dirtiest oil-producing technology to date (other than possibly this awful thing), if this is going to get super cheap, then oil-based stuff is going to get super dirty, and we, as a society, need to start discouraging it and changing how we do said oil dirtiest activity.
posted by wormwood23 to Human Relations (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The use of petroleum products is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, our entire civilization is based on petroleum products. Everything you can see and touch at this very moment incorporates petroleum to some extent - the fabric of your clothes, the computer you are writing on, the carpet on the floor, the laminate on your furniture, the container for your food, the paint on your wall... Burning petroleum to create energy and heat is the the most wasteful thing you can do with such a useful, integral substance.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:57 PM on November 12, 2012 [7 favorites]

Driving, probably.

I think the solution to the driving problem is different in different areas, but there are a few things that are pretty universally worth looking at in most places: bike infrastructure, walkability, and public transit.
posted by Sara C. at 10:58 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Industrial farming uses petroleum based products for fertilization, pesticides, preservation then again for each step of the transportation from farm to market.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 11:21 PM on November 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

Flying. There are roughly 90,000 flights a day in the US and at the moment there are no airplanes that don't use petroleum.

(There are some experiments with solar an electric, but they don't carry people or cargo, nor will they in the near future.)
posted by Ookseer at 11:38 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm going to say living in big homes. A big home probably means you have to drive around a lot. It needs to be heated. It involves a lot of building materials. You probably fill it up with a lot of stuff. You probably buy a lot of industrially farmed food (maybe for your second fridge) that you end up throwing out. Your home is big and you need to turn on the lights to be able to see.

Compare this to living in a small space, in multi-unit housing, where you walk to work, shop locally on a daily basis, have some natural lighting, and need less heat because the other units help warm your place.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:03 AM on November 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

This chart says by far (in 2005) that transportation is the largest portion: 70%. Further broken down, we have automobiles at 43.4%, diesel & fuel oil at 23.5%, and jet fuel at 9.2%. I'm a little suprised at that last number, because I would have assumed as Ookseer does that air travel would be higher.

As far as doing things to reduce American production... we're not going to have any options. Petroleum is the canonical example of a fungible resource. Meaning, it doesn't matter whether it comes from America, Canada, Russia, or the Middle East: it's all the same on the market. It's global demand for petroleum that matters. If America drastically cut domestic usage we'd just export that much more because global demand (particularly China and India) is still high.

If you want to stop fracking and tar sands operations in America, you really need to go after them directly.
posted by sbutler at 12:19 AM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm surprised by how high a percentage asphalt is but it does make sense. It would be on par with replacing petroleum lubricants and seems like relatively low hanging fruit in terms of a replacement. Plasticbagphalt, maybe?
posted by feloniousmonk at 12:34 AM on November 13, 2012

Driving short distances that could be walked or biked.
posted by telstar at 1:49 AM on November 13, 2012

posted by driley at 1:53 AM on November 13, 2012 [10 favorites]

leaf blowing. apparently the two-stroke engine blowers can produce more pollution than a modern car!
posted by colorproof at 2:06 AM on November 13, 2012

Reproduction is a natural human activity, and overpopulation is actually caused by high infant mortality in the first place (seems paradoxical, but it's true).
posted by KokuRyu at 2:06 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think anyone's saying that reproduction is NOT natural -- but many sources attest having a child as the worst single thing you can do to the planet.

Fine Homebuilding this month has an arcticle on how the International Code Council is seeking to achieve a 50% energy usage reduction by 2015 versus a home built to code in 2006. That's great, but of course it only affects new construction. The magazine is doing good work to promote green building, but most of its readership seem to love the featured homes which are usually at least suburban and often rural sprawl. But creating cities with much higher densities and walking/biking/transit alternatives to the car is probably going to be one of the most important things we can do (for those of us who do end up having kids). Between those two things having a structural effect on energy usage, I'm not sure what else we could do that would have as large an effect.

In general, it isn't so much that we use fossil fuels and other non-renewables, it's that we use them so wastefully. I had a physics prof back in the 1980s (!) who told us repeatedly, "the largest source of new energy in the future is going to be conservation".
posted by dhartung at 3:01 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sprawl is the worst thing by far.

Not only does it produce inefficient transportation networks and inefficient housing, it also removes vast swathes of arable land from production. There are also large knock-on effects to quality of life.

It is the worst thing.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:16 AM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised by how high a percentage asphalt is but it does make sense. It would be on par with replacing petroleum lubricants and seems like relatively low hanging fruit in terms of a replacement. Plasticbagphalt, maybe?

Except asphalt is a byproduct of making the other stuff.

And yeah, the root cause of a lot of petrolium use seems to be sprawl.
posted by gjc at 5:16 AM on November 13, 2012

In addition to factory/industrial farming being one of the worst polluters, according to a recent TED talk I watched, cows are also responsible for more global warming than automobiles. (In addition to the whole torturing the animals, destroying the land, and destroying the efficacy of antibiotics and I'm sure some other horrible things I missed.) Americans eat something like five times more meat than they did in the early 1900s. Cutting that back could make a big difference in a lot of areas.
posted by Glinn at 5:21 AM on November 13, 2012

The answer to this question is hugely dependent on the exact phrasing. The worst things we do as a society vs the worst things that an individual can freely choose not to do, etc. It's basically unquestionable that the best single choice the average western individual can make to reduce their carbon footprint is "not to have a child they otherwise would have had", simply because the sequence of successive generations to which any child is likely to give rise means that multiple further carbon footprints will be generated (pdf link). But of course there are a million questions about whether or how such choices ought to be encouraged.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:44 AM on November 13, 2012

A big problem/feature is that we can't reduce oil use in one area and expect anything from that.

As noted Oil is one of the few "every part of the Buffalo" industrial materials that exists. The laptop I'm on, the heat in the building I'm in, the chair I'm sitting on, the car I drive, the gas it uses, and the road and tires themselves are all made of oil.

But Gas, Plastic, Lubricant and Asphalt all come from the same barrel of crude.

Assuming the individual in question already lives an above average Eco-friendly life I'd say the biggest single contribution would be Adoption in place of having a natural born child. Not only one less new person but one more Eco-friendly person (until they are old enough to buy a Suburban)

Aside from that:

Living in a dense urban area ('Sustainable' off the grid living uses more carbon and land than a city dweller)
Eating little to no meat.
Not traveling ever.
posted by French Fry at 5:53 AM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Buying imported goods. Ships burn the dirtiest parts of the oil.

Confidential data from maritime industry insiders based on engine size and the quality of fuel typically used by ships and cars shows that just 15 of the world's biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760m cars"
posted by thylacine at 7:32 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've heard fast fashion being blamed for this a lot in the UK - artificial fibres require a lot of oil to produce, and cheaper clothing is more likely to use polyester and in garments which are deliberately not constructed to last, and have minimal resale value or recyclability.
posted by mippy at 7:58 AM on November 13, 2012

Its an interesting question, to be sure. Transportation uses the most oil, but space heating uses more energy. Both are abetted by large homes in sprawling neighborhoods, and the dependence on large global supply chains.

However, I'd take a bit of issue with the premise of your question. I'd disagree that tight oil extracted using horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing is the "most dirty". If water and air pollution are your criteria, then oil sands mining wins this dubious accolade. If GHG intensity is, then in-situ heavy oil / bitumen production does. Regardless of the deposit type, and where and how it is extracted though, by far the greatest source of pollution on a "wells to wheels" life-cycle basis is in the combustion. That is, while Albertan bitumen (mined or steamed) are more GHG intensive, 85% of their GHG footprint still happens in your car engine. That is, the problem isn't necessarily the style of extraction (though I don't disagree that unconventional resources are more energy and pollution intensive), but in that we've managed to stay well ahead of the depletion curve on known commercial resources, Peak Oil predictions notwithstanding, and have continued to consume ever greater amounts of fossil fuels.

I also disagree with the inference that increasing US production will make oil "super cheap". All unconventional oil extraction -- whether bitumen/heavy oil, tight oil, oil shale (not shale oil), gas to liquids or coal to liquids -- is expensive, and only becomes commercial at high commodity prices. Oil sands mines in Canada used to require 30$ or so a barrel to be commercial. Now, companies are finding it difficult to make their economic thresholds at 100$ a barrel, and very few oil sands projects could work under 70$. Bakken or Eagle Ford tight oil wells are profitable now, but would be challenged if oil prices drop 10 - 20$ or so. In fact, because of pipeline and transportation bottlenecks, mid-continental producers (North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Alberta) sell at deep discounts to standard index crudes (West Texas, Brent, etc) and small to mid sized companies with large resource bases are folding and being bought out. So if oil becomes "super cheap", expect that the marginal, high cost, greater environmental impact sources will drop off.

I personally don't take the IEA forecast very seriously. They extrapolate the success of a handful of tight oil plays -- which are marginally commercial -- to all tight resources in the US, many of which have been tested and abandoned because wells fail to produce commercial rates despite initial optimism and large resource-in-place estimates. Moreover, tight oil deposits and extraction technology aren't limited to the US. Russia's tight oil deposits dwarf the US', and they're just getting started.
posted by bumpkin at 8:29 AM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

There are a lot of carbon calculators out there that will give you a pretty good idea of where to start. In fact, people have been trying to build alternative cultures that address the big three. Driving (Complete streets movement), flying (slow travel movement), eating (vegetarian and vegan movements)...
posted by Skwirl at 8:38 AM on November 13, 2012

I've heard half of all current energy production goes to cooling, ie air conditioning, but I can't give you a cite.
posted by Rash at 8:42 AM on November 13, 2012

Best answer: The least- and most-efficient American metro areas differ in carbon footprint by a factor of two. The big differences are climate, transportation, and density.

Honolulu has a mild climate but awful traffic, but is planning a lot of development around heavy rail soon. This might put it even further in the lead.

Los Angeles & nearby areas have mild climates, such that many houses, especially near the coast, don't have central heat or A/C. It has bad traffic, but also has a decently high percentage of transit users, and is building its public transportation system up rapidly.

Portland has a relatively mild climate, tries to outlaw sprawl, and has great rail/bicycle options for a city of its size.

The New York City area doesn't have a particularly mild climate, but has the highest percentage of transit users anywhere in the country, including a lot of electrically-powered rail. New York City itself has smaller living spaces that share walls, so less power is required for HVAC & heat escapes into neighboring units instead of open air.

Even Chicago, which has a pretty extreme climate, is more efficient than average with its high percentage of rail users & decent stock of compact walkable neighborhoods.

The worst places are sprawly Sunbelt suburban agglomerations and areas that use a lot of coal power.

The single policy that would make this better economy-wide would be a carbon tax (or cap-and-trade), so people would have to pay for the disproportionate environmental damage that they do. That'll be hard to get passed and take years of work.

Locally, do you best to help your town move away from sprawl-oriented development patterns-- many towns have all manner of regulations enforcing sprawling suburbanism like mandatory minimum parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, floor-area ratios, height maximums, and so on, all of which serve to build an environment that make it impossible to walk anywhere; if people can't walk anywhere, they certainly can't walk to a bus stop or train station, so this also excludes functional mass transit, and that makes for lots of driving to get through the day. Building neighborhoods more-or-less like we did 100 years ago should be a goal.

Personally, vegetarianism helps a lot.
posted by akgerber at 9:06 AM on November 13, 2012

Also, we should encourage denser development in mild climates near the coast. If we upzoned the land from Malibu to Laguna Beach for skyscrapers (or even 7-story apartment houses, like in Paris), built a heavy rail line down the coast, and let a few million people move there from Oklahoma City and the like, it'd take a huge dent out of the US's carbon footprint. Unfortunately, development in those areas is generally controlled by NIMBY cabals that don't want to share.
posted by akgerber at 9:12 AM on November 13, 2012

Definitely sprawl and "rural residential" development.
posted by fshgrl at 11:23 AM on November 13, 2012

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