Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017: Part I, Taking Stock

The United States is the oiliest country on the planet. We Americans consume more oil by far than any other country. Next is China, but even with 1.4 billion people they’re a distant second. Americans, in fact, consume 20% of the world’s oil each year, over 19 million barrels a day. Last year US oil consumption worked out to 923 gallons per man, woman and child. Oil is a worldwide commodity. Because its consumption is so enormous, US demand drives both the price of oil and the profits it produces. And for all the talk of the US being energy independent, the US also imports the most oil of any country in the world. (China, again, is a distant second.) Americans are literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat of world oil consumption. (Canadians actually use more oil per person, but because their population is so much smaller, they have much less of an impact.)

Now if funneling profits and power to multinational oil corporations and Saudi Arabia doesn’t bother you, read no further. If you’re fine with indirectly funding terrorism, or if having a future Secretary of State who is the head of ExxonMobil doesn’t freak you out a bit, this article is not for you.

But if you stand with Standing Rock, read on. If the stonings and beheadings in Saudi Arabia trouble you, if you’re not fond of crude oil spills every other day in the US, if you’re not a fan of tar sands and fracking, or if you understand that the only way to prevent climate catastrophe is to leave much of what’s left of fossil fuels in the ground for at least the next couple centuries, then you might find this two-part article useful.

Pinguid living
Let's face it, America, our lives are saturated in oil, and reducing that pinguidity (there’s a word for you!) is not an easy task. We’ve got oily transport, oily heating, oily beverages, oily food, we drive on oily roads, and our homes are full of oily stuff. How do we get some or all of that oil out of our lives?

Most of our consumption of oil is so deeply embedded in our way of life that we're unconscious of it or believe there's no alternative. The antidote is to first make that consumption conscious and then get creative with alternatives, tailoring them to our specific situations. Here’s the good news: most of the steps you can take to purge oil from your life will make you healthier, happier, and your household more resilient! If you have kids, many of the steps will make them healthier, happier and perform better in school! Many of the steps will also make your community healthier, more prosperous, and more resilient. And if your prosperity is linked to your community’s prosperity, it will make you more prosperous as well.
So let's bring the unconscious to the light of day. Just how oily is your life?

How we move ourselves around this planet matters. A lot. And our driving is the big kahuna. Two-thirds of American oil consumption is from transportation; close to two-thirds of that we do in cars. We can freak out about freight and air travel, but it's the daily moving about in private cars powered by internal combustion engines that is the single biggest oil slurper in our lives. To examine your oil consumption, including how oily your travel is, I've created this nifty calculator to help put a number to it. You fill in the orange boxes (replacing values if applicable), and the green boxes will calculate your oil gallons consumed. In some of the orange boxes I've put average American values. You can decide how appropriate they are for you. Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the frame to see your total. Remember, we're not looking at all energy consumed, nor are we looking at our carbon footprint. Our laser-like focus here is concentrated solely on oil and its products.

A few words about oily home heat. Only 8% of US households use heating oil. If yours is one of them, you probably have records of how much you use, but, for example, the average Massachusetts heating oil home uses 987 gallons per year. Only 5% of  homes use propane, and only 31% of all propane comes from oil refineries. (The rest is from natural gas.) Put in total propane you use and the calculator will take 31% of it. An average Massachusetts propane-heat house uses 886 gallons a year.

Why? Why? Why?
For oily beverages, how many PET plastic bottles of water or soda do you consume a week, on average? Your fellow citizens consume 4.5, using up 9.1 gallons of oil a year.

Plastic bags. The average American throws away 10 a week. That's another 2.2 gallons of oil per year. If you throw away more or less, adjust accordingly.

Non-oily 1 week of food in Bhutan (photo: Peter Menzel, Hungry Planet)
How about food oiliness? The average American consumes one ton of food a year. No, I'm not kidding. Each pound travels an average of 1500 miles to get to you. No, I'm not kidding. The oil it takes to truck this ton of food to a store near you comes out to 44 gallons a year. You eat local, you say? If you got 100% of your food from an average distance of 150 miles, that would come to 4.4 gallons of oil a year. Remember, this in no way includes all the fossil fuels embedded in your food since natural gas is the number one energy source used by fertilizer and grain drying, and food processing and refrigeration largely use electricity.

Stuff and more stuff
How about all the rest of the bejeebus amount of stuff we buy in a year? It weighs roughly another ton per person. No way, you say! Remember, this ton includes 125 lbs for your half of one car (3500 lbs divided by 14 years of car life), and your share of household appliances divided by their useful life. What's worse is that to make this 2000 lbs of stuff for you, industry in the US and other parts of the world moves, mines, extracts, shovels, burns, waste, pumps and disposes of one million pounds of material. All this material manipulation and far-flung worldwide supply chain of raw materials, feedstocks, and components uses a lot of oil. (Also a lot of natural gas and a fair amount of electricity. But let's just consider oil.) A low estimate is 1/2 gallon per ton. That makes 250 gallons of oil embedded in your yearly non-food stuff consumption. This number includes all the rest of the plastic and any polyester or nylon you consume in a year and the ridiculous amount of packaging that your stuff comes in, but it doesn't include shipping the final product to you. Let's figure half the stuff is made in the US and comes by truck; the other half is made in Asia and comes by ship, then rail, and then truck. (You can change these percentages.) If you think you consume more or less stuff than the average American, adjust accordingly.

I'm getting tired, and no doubt you are too, of slogging through all this oil, but we'll go just a bit further. Your on-line shopping deliveries. Now the United States Postal Service comes to your house and puts junkmail in your box whether you get anything else or not, so your share of USPS oil (average 500 stops a day, 18 miles, 9 mpg) is a flat 1.25 gallons per year if you live in suburbia regardless of how many packages you get. If you live ex-urban, double that. If you live urban, cut it in half.

Future Electric Delivery?
For Fed-Ex and UPS deliveries, enter the average number of times each one visits you a week, not packages per week. Count all package deliveries you order, including ones you send as gifts, but not ones you receive as gifts. If a large percentage of deliveries are for your household in general, only attribute to yourself your share.

Spa treatment
And now you have a final total. Admittedly, this calculator isn't perfect, but I think you'll find it's not bad. It doesn't include asphalt for roads or oil consumed on your behalf by various government entities (roughly another 30 gallons covers both, depending on how many wars we are actively involved in) and numerous other small items like asphalt roofs, detergents, antifreeze and antihistamines, but it does include most of what you're likely to personally impact. Your yearly oil consumption may not fill a swimming pool, but it would probably overflow ten to twelve bathtubs or even a good-sized jacuzzi. So would the oil consumption of everyone else in your household, every one of your neighbors, every one of your friends. For comparison, your average Brit consumes 372 gallons of oil per year, your average Chinese 134 gallons, and your average Bangladeshi 10 gallons.

As you can see, oil seeps through the fabric of our existence even if we never actually see it, its viscous liquor oozing through our daily lives whether we like it or not. So what do we do with all this oil? How do we squeeze the oiliness out of our lives?

First step: check out part 2, Squeezing Oil Out of Your Travel.

Note: Gallons. I know, I know, when discussing anything to do with energy, joules or even BTU's would be better, but most people have little intrinsic understanding of either, while nearly everyone knows what a gallon is. Plus the lion's share of transportation data uses gallons. So I went with it.


  1. Goodness, your blog is full of amazing information, and that is just what I need, as I am about to embark on a year of trying to reduce my oiliness to about ten percent of the average.. I really have no idea what I am doing, so it is wonderful to find this smorgasbord of useful information:)

  2. OK, so I just did the oiliness quiz, and I have come up with 120 gallons. The hardest part was transferring all the quantities from metric to imperial. But I did it. It seems quite a small number compared to the US number, and I am sure my impact is greater than that. Having said that, I never fly, don't drive a lot, and never buy anything new - does buying second hand count in the oil stats? I rarely (twice a year maybe) get anything delivered and I included my plastic milk bottles, although they are HDPE not PET (still plastic obviously). I included my share of the car. Our heating is wood and our electricity is half hydro, half coal derived, which could be better, and of course coal is pre-oil. But thanks for this great resource - I will link to it from my blog if that is ok?

  3. Well, if you don't fly, don't drive much, and don't use heating oil or propane, I could see how your oil use would be quite low. I would say that second hand stuff does count but at some reduced rate, not just pounds of the item divided by years of life. However, the used stuff wouldn't have the oil delivery miles tacked on. The first owner gets that. And if you acquire something that would've been sent to landfill if you didn't use it, then I would say it's oil-free! Feel free to link. And check out part 2. It's up now.

  4. A UK gallon is a litre larger than a US gallon .3.7 to 4.7 . So in us gallons their number is higher .

    1. Even so, her number is pretty good compared to the average American (923 gallons!) If I were really clever, I'd make the calculator work for imperial gallons and metric.

  5. I am in Australia so converting from litres and kilometres. So much maths! Thank goodness for google calculators:)

    I did add 50kg (100 lbs-ish) to my 'stuff' calculation for old, small appliances that weren't second-hand, such as food processor, blender etc. I think the calculator is brilliant. Now, on to part 2!

  6. Price is the one - and only - thing that's proven to get the majority of the population to seriously reduce oil consumption on a grand scale. Oil use of every kind goes down as the price rises. It goes up as the price falls. Full stop. So if the goal is to get the entire country to be more mindful of consumption... prices have to go up significantly and stay up.

    Don't expect any government policy to raise the cost of oil. Ever. It's a political non-starter. Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Socialists... forget it. They'd be voted out of office for merely suggesting such a plan.

    If you expect Peak Oil to cut off the supply and raise prices you're also going to be disappointed. As physical production declines and supply becomes tight prices rise. Those higher prices make it economical to pull dirtier marginal sources (tar sands, fracking, deep water) out of the ground. But high prices make the economy contract, demand collapses, and the price of oil drops back down. The lower price allows the economy to recover and people go back to consuming again. Rinse. Repeat.

    Wartime rationing is effective at reducing discretionary domestic oil consumption, but the war itself burns up a huge amount of oil.

    If you're waiting for enough environmental destruction and nasty effects of climate change to finally get people to understand that their oil usage is a genuine problem you'll also be disappointed. Society's response to floods, forest fires, tornadoes, and hurricanes will be to build protective infrastructure to fortify existing places (tidal barrages, sea walls, massive pumping stations, concrete storm shelters...) which are all intensely oily. People will also migrate away from vulnerable places and build new structures in safer places which will also be an oily process.

    I'm not being a pessimist here. I'm not a doomer. I've spent a lot of time thinking this through. In the end we do what we do because we can. And we stop doing things because we have no other choice. This process is going to play out for the rest of this century before all the combined forces resolve themselves in a messy decline.

  7. I am certainly aware that higher prices are the major way to reduce oil consumption on a grand scale--the price in real terms of what people can afford. (Recessions have a way of quickly reducing oil consumption as well.)

    The premise of this article is if one doesn't want to personally support Saudi Arabia and ExxonMobil, there are ways to substantially reduce one's oil consumption (and carbon footprint) that have the side benefits of increasing one's wealth, health and happiness. Another added benefit is resilience. Any future problems with oil supply will have much less impact on someone already living oil-lite.

    Before the Civil War, some in the North chose not to wear cotton fabric because the cotton was picked by slaves. Did it end slavery? No. Was it the ethical choice? Yes.

    I have reduced my oil consumption for ethical reasons. I offer others ideas of how they can do the same.

  8. Karen - Interesting blog and similar logic and analysis to what I have been doing for years. There are problems with food miles (look at where the numbers were derived) and I don't think you adequately address embedded energy. For example, the embedded energy of a tractor is within 3% of the energy of the fuel used, so you can just double the diesel/gas consumption to get the total energy use. I suggest getting a copy of Pimentel's book Food, Energy and Society, if you don't already have it. He has been doing this since the 70's. You can also check out my first book, The Laws of Physics Are On My Side (2013). It is available on Amazon, but you can also get it from your local county library through interlibrary loan.