What is Oil Used For? What the Super Bowl Commercial Didn’t Tell You…

February 6, 2017
Jimmy O'Dea
Senior Vehicles Analyst

A commercial during yesterday’s Super Bowl about oil may have given you pause.

Besides the sports car (about to go off-roading), the commercial was about things you probably don’t associate with oil. Like graffiti; makeup; prosthetics; a heart; and outer space.

Is oil really diversifying? Or is this ad just a marketing ploy?

Looking at data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it is pretty clear that oil and natural gas are still being used overwhelmingly for what they have always been used for—combustion, whether in vehicles or power plants.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) ran the commercial in question. API is the largest oil trade association in the United States. Member companies include BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell. You may have heard of API for their role in a concerted campaign to spread denial about climate change. They merged with America’s Natural Gas Alliance last fall, so it now lobbies for both oil and natural gas interests. This merger came about because major oil companies now have large natural gas assets.

As a chemist, I know that many consumable products like asphalt, paint, and plastics have oil or natural gas as a precursor ingredient. And while these products have many positive impacts in society, they are absolutely tiny fractions of the oil and gas industry and should not be used to justify the bulk of their business. Over 90% of oil and gas is used for combustion, either in power plants or vehicles.

Let’s not discount the many benefits energy provides society

But while coal, oil, and natural gas have been our primary sources of energy for many decades, we will not rely on them in the future. We are moving to a world that gets most of our energy from clean, renewable resources like wind and solar. This is in large part because the cleanest sources of energy are becoming the cheapest. Our cars and trucks can plug into that clean grid for their future fueling needs.

There are many chemists exploring ways to make plastics etc. from non-petroleum resources such as plants. This is great work (and tough chemistry) that will lead to a more sustainable world. But if we are going to stop the worst effects of global warming and clean our air, we must remember the most obvious effects oil and natural gas are having on our communities and our world.

We have solutions

While oil may currently play a role in making paint, plastics, or rocket fuel, it doesn’t “gush art,” “pump life,” or “explore space”–that would be artists, doctors, and scientists. And it is artists painting a picture of environmental justice; doctors treating patients suffering from asthma; and scientists discovering clean energy solutions.

Posted in: Energy, Transportation

About the author

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Jimmy O’Dea's work focuses on cleaner vehicle and freight technologies and policies. Previously, Dr. O’Dea developed energy and climate policies for Senator Brian Schatz during an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Engineering Congressional Fellowship awarded by the Materials Research Society and Optical Society.