Don’t Believe
the Hype

Don’t Believe the Hype: Why Bio-Based Chemicals Aren’t Superior to Petroleum Derived

The idiom of the contemporary marketing gist — sustainable, organic, natural, green — conveys an emotive appeal that has come to dominate the marketing of personal care and household products. The explicit message that biochemically produced feedstock’s are inherently superior to refined petroleum-based (i.e., mineral) ones has become dogma.  Do bio-based chemicals outperform?  Are they economically and ethically superior?

Further reinforcing the popular notion that “green is good” versus traditional materials are government policies and mandates. These mandates are channeling automotive fuel markets into corn ethanol, sugar cane ethanol and biodiesel. Simultaneously, virtually every consumer products company has launched “natural” programs that include replacing synthetic chemistries with chemistries from fields and forests.

Raw materials derived from crude oil and natural gas have been shunned in formulating new products because they are not believed to be “natural.” Yet, crude oil and natural gas are most definitely natural as they are plant derived and extracted from the earth. In fact, feedstocks derived from petroleum are the most efficiently produced natural materials, they are of extremely high purity and safety; are widely available in substantial quantities, do not contribute to the continued destruction of forests and do not compete with food production. Moreover, a small proportion (less than 3 percent) of crude oil and natural gas is used as raw materials, saving agricultural and forest products for more valuable and socially responsible uses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has elevated chemistry to the sphere of religiosity with their “Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry.” The high purity hydrocarbons produced by Sonneborn meet 11 of these 12 principles, which, by any objective measure, is as good as or better than any of the “natural” materials being commonly used in “green” marketing.

A number of the common fallacies favoring “green” over mineral hydrocarbons wilt under the light of fact and reason. Each of these is in itself a minor treatise when studied in detail and can be addressed as future topics. Three common misconceptions are that “natural” products by their very nature reduce CO2 emissions, they cost less and they have lower price volatility than petroleum. None of these tenets of “green” marketing are true.

A major driver of deforestation is the conversion of virgin forests to the production of oilseed crops, especially soybean and palm oil. The most rapidly growing demand for oilseed crops is for industrial uses, including biodiesel and chemical raw materials (currently 20 percent of demand and increasing). While biofuels can theoretically be considered carbon neutral (to the degree that they are net energy contributors), in actuality they exacerbate the problem as biodiesel saves nothing due to deforestation.  The US Academy of Sciences has estimated it takes 250 years of carbon savings to offset the large CO2 spike from the destruction of forests and peat bogs.

Current biodiesel schemes cannot come close to replacing diesel from petroleum. In terms of energy equivalence, the approximately 150 million tonnes of global vegetable oil production (80 percent of which goes to food) equals about 2.7 million barrels per day of crude oil (about 3 percent of global demand). Oilseeds are not scalable to replace diesel fuel. The technology to produce algal-based fuels, like those from cellulose, remains stubbornly elusive.

The marketers’ response to deforestation is “sustainable palm.” However, “sustainable” is achieved by the shell game of isolating the source of oil to existing palm plantations and ignoring the continued destruction of carbon sinks to support industrial demand growth (which is also fostered by taxpayer subsidies). It is not a good time for orangutans or Sumatran tigers.

Neither does “natural” offer significant savings or reduced price volatility. Natural alternatives are frequently higher cost, in many cases much higher than the petroleum hydrocarbons they replace. Ironically, the government policies and subsidies requiring the substitution of petroleum hydrocarbons with natural hydrocarbons has served only to correlate food pricing with petroleum to magnify the volatility of food pricing. The diversion of agricultural products for the purposes of displacing hydrocarbons only inflates food prices while reducing supply to the world’s human population. It is not a good time for homemakers, especially during a time of slow to marginal GDP growth.

Petroleum supply is not an issue in this century. With the tremendous advances in discovery and production technologies, it is increasingly apparent that the world is running into gas and oil and not running out of the resource. The myth of “peak oil” has been shattered. As an example, a recent U.S. government study estimates there are 3 trillion barrels of oil in shale oil on federal lands in the Green River Basin (CO, UT and WY), of which half is judged recoverable with current technology (GAO Report, May 2012). This represents more than 200 years of U.S. crude oil consumption at current rates. The story on natural gas and coal supply is similar.

Soybean Oil

Does it make sense to destroy natural carbon sinks to inefficiently convert foodstuffs to fuel? Petroleum and natural gas are difficult to replace because in addition to their massive scale, they are very efficiently extracted, transported and refined. Also, they have higher density energy than the alternatives (more miles per gallon).  Well-to-wheel, the thermal efficiency of oil is greater than 90 percent (Argonne National Laboratories, API and IEA). By comparison, the USDA estimates the thermal efficiency of corn ethanol at 47 percent (the high end of a typical estimate). It is estimated that ethanol will consume 50 percent of this year’s U.S. corn crop and contribute to record high prices for wheat, soy and other food grains.  Why replace lower cost, high purity, environmentally safe and more efficient mineral hydrocarbon raw materials with more expensive foodstuff?

There is no embarrassment — either economically or ethically — in using petroleum-derived raw materials.