Environmental impact of the petroleum industry

Petroleum is one of the main sources of energy in the World. Petroleum and its by-products are used to fuel various forms of transportation, industry and domestic electricity use. Petroleum is also used to manufacture plastics which provides products essential for daily life. Also, petroleum has helped create many products like cosmetics, tyres (rubber) pesticides etc. Over the years there have been increased concerns over the environmental effects of the petroleum industry. The environmental impacts of petroleum are mainly negative. This is due to the toxicity of petroleum which contributes to air pollution, acid rain, and various illnesses in humans. Petroleum also fuels climate change, due to the increased greenhouse gas emissions in its extraction, refinement, transport and consumption phases.



Petroleum is a complex mixture of many components . These components include straight chained , branched , cyclic , monocyclic aromatic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The toxicity of oils can be understood using the toxic potential or the toxicity of each individual component of oil at the water solubility of that component.[1] There are many methods that can be used to measure the toxicity of crude oil and other petroleum related products. Certain studies analyzing levels of toxicity can use the target lipid model or colorimetric analysis using colored-dyes in order to assess toxicity and biodegradability.[2]

Different oils and petroleum-related products have different levels of toxicity. Levels of toxicity are influenced by many factors such as weathering, solubility, as well as chemical properties such as persistence. Increased weathering tends to decrease levels of toxicity as more soluble and lower molecular weight substances are removed.[1] Highly soluble substances tend to have higher levels of toxicity than substances that are not very soluble in water.[2] Generally oils that have longer carbon chains and with more benzene rings have higher levels of toxicity. Benzene is the petroleum-related product with the highest level of toxicity. Other substances other than benzene which are highly toxic are toluene, methylbenzene and xylenes (BETX).[2] Substances with the lowest toxicity are crude oil and motor oil.[2]

Despite varying levels of toxicity amongst different variants of oil , all petroleum -derived products have adverse impacts on human health and the ecosystem. Examples of adverse effects are oil emulsions in digestive systems in certain mammals might result in decreased ability to digest nutrients that might lead to death of certain mammals. Further symptoms include capillary ruptures and hemorrhages. Ecosystem food chains can be affected due to a decrease in algae productivity therefore threatening certain species.[2] Oil is "acutely lethal" to fish - that is, it kills fish quickly, at a concentration of 4000 parts per million (ppm)[3] (0.4%). The toxicity of petroleum related products threaten human health. Many compounds found in oil are highly toxic and can cause cancer (carcinogenic) as well as other diseases.[1] Studies in Taiwan link proximity to oil refineries to premature births.[4] Crude oil and petroleum distillates cause birth defects.[5]

Benzene is present in both crude oil and gasoline and is known to cause leukaemia in humans.[6] The compound is also known to lower the white blood cell count in humans, which would leave people exposed to it more susceptible to infections.[6] "Studies have linked benzene exposure in the mere parts per billion (ppb) range to terminal leukemia, Hodgkin's lymphoma, and other blood and immune system diseases within 5-15 years of exposure."[7]


Emissions from the petroleum industry occur in every chain of the oil-producing process from the extraction to the consumption phase . In the extraction phase there are emissions of not only carbon dioxide but various other pollutants like nitrous oxides and aerosols.[8] Certain by-products include carbon monoxide and methanol. When oil or petroleum distillates are combusted, usually the combustion is not complete and the chemical reaction leaves by-products which are not water or carbon dioxide. However, despite the large amounts of pollutants, there is uncertainty about the amount and concentration of certain pollutants.[8] In the refinement stages of petroleum also contributes to large amounts of pollution in urban areas. This increase in pollution has adverse effects on human health due to the toxicity of oil. A study investigating the effects of oil refineries in Taiwan. The study found an increased occurrence of premature births in mothers that lived in close proximity to oil refineries than mothers who lived away from oil refineries. There were also differences observed in sex ratios and the birth weight of the children.[4] Also, fine particulates of soot blacken humans' and other animals' lungs and cause heart problems or death. Soot is cancer causing (carcinogenic)[1]

Acid rain

The combustion process of petroleum , coal , and wood is responsible for increased occurrence of acid rain. Combustion causes an increased amount of nitrous oxide s, along with sulfur dioxide from the sulfur in the oil. These by-products combine with water in the atmosphere to create acid rain. The increased concentrations of nitrates and other acidic substances have significant effects on the pH levels of rainfall. Data samples analyzed from the United States and Europe from the past 100 years and showed an increase in nitrous oxide emissions from combustion. The emissions were large enough to acidify the rainfall. The acid rain has adverse impacts on the larger ecosystem.[9] For example acid rain can kill trees, and can kill fish by acidifying lakes. Coral reefs are also destroyed by acid rain. Acid rain also leads to the corrosion of machinery and structures (large amounts of capital) and to the slow destruction of archeological structures like the marble ruins of Rome and Greece.

Climate change

The combustion of petroleum causes an increased amount of carbon dioxide emissions as well as other greenhouse gases. The first study on the effects of carbon dioxide was studied by Swedish Nobel chemist Svante Arrhenius.[10] His mathematical model showed that an increase of carbon dioxide results in an increase in surface temperatures, therefore both factors are correlated. The combustion of petroleum for transport, industrial and domestic use is one of the major forms of air pollution. The ultimate by-product of oil combustion is carbon dioxide, however, there are other by-products such as carbon monoxide and nitrates. These by-products react with the atmosphere to produce ozone and other greenhouse gases. The increased pollution has consequences on global temperature. The atmosphere reflects 30% of the incoming longwave radiation back and keeps 70% of it for warmth. However, an increased carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere acts as a "blanket" to increased heat. Therefore, more longwave radiation is trapped in the atmosphere when there is a higher concentration of carbon dioxide and this trapping results in increased surface temperatures.[10] IPCC (2007) states that the climate system will heat up by 3 degrees Celsius for a doubling of carbon dioxide .[10] The warming of the temperatures will have massive impacts on rainfall patterns, retreat of glaciers, and the average sea levels.

Oil spills

An oil spill is the release of a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment, especially marine areas, due to human activity, and is a form of pollution. The term is usually applied to marine oil spills, where oil is released into the ocean or coastal waters, but spills may also occur on land. Oil spills may be due to releases of crude oil from tankers, pipelines, railcars, offshore platforms, drilling rigs and wells, as well as spills of refined petroleum products (such as gasoline, diesel) and their by-products, heavier fuels used by large ships such as bunker fuel, or the spill of any oily refuse or waste oil.

Major oil spills include, Lakeview Gusher, Gulf War oil spill, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Spilt oil penetrates into the structure of the plumage of birds and the fur of mammals, reducing its insulating ability, and making them more vulnerable to temperature fluctuations and much less buoyant in the water. Cleanup and recovery from an oil spill is difficult and depends upon many factors, including the type of oil spilled, the temperature of the water (affecting evaporation and biodegradation), and the types of shorelines and beaches involved.[11] Other factors influencing the rate of long-term contamination is the continuous inputs of petroleum residues and the rate at which the environment can clean itself[12] Spills may take weeks, months or even years to clean up.[13]

Volatile organic compounds

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are gases or vapours emitted by various solids and liquids."[14] Petroleum hydrocarbons such as gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel intruding into indoor spaces from underground storage tanks or brownfields threaten safety (e.g., explosive potential) and causes adverse health effects from inhalation.[15]

Waste oil

Waste oil is oil containing not only breakdown products but also impurities from use. Some examples of waste oil are used oils such as hydraulic oil, transmission oil, brake fluids, motor oil, crankcase oil, gear box oil and synthetic oil.[16] Many of the same problems associated with natural petroleum exist with waste oil. When waste oil from vehicles drips out engines over streets and roads, the oil travels into the water table bringing with it such toxins as benzene. This poisons both soil and drinking water. Runoff from storms carries waste oil into rivers and oceans, poisoning them as well.


Conservation and phasing out

Many countries across the World have subsidies and policies designed to reduce the use of petroleum and fossil fuels. Examples include China which switched from providing subsidies for fossil fuels to providing subsidies for renewable energy.[17] Other examples include Sweden which created laws which are designed to eventually phase out the use of petroleum, which is known as the 15-year plan.[18] These policies have their benefits and their challenges and every country has had their different experiences. In China, positive benefits were observed in the energy system due to higher renewable energy subsidies in three ways. It made consumption of energy cleaner due to moving for cleaner sources. Secondly, it helped increase the efficiency and third it resolved the issue of imbalanced distribution and consumption. However, from the Chinese experience, there were challenges observed. These challenges included economic challenges like initially lower economic benefits for subsidies from renewable energy than for oil. Other challenges included a high cost of research and development, the uncertainty of cost and potentially high-risk investments. These factors make the development of renewable energy very dependent on government support. However, aims of phasing out fossil fuels and petroleum use may also present economic benefits such as increased investment. This strategy may help achieve social goals for example reduction in pollution which might translate to better environmental and health outcomes.[18]

Another option for conserving energy and phasing out petroleum use is adopting new technologies in order to increase efficiency. This can include changing production methods and modes of transportation.

Substitution of other energy sources

Alternatives to petroleum can include using other “cleaner” energy sources such as renewable energy, natural gas or biodiesel. Some of the alternatives have their strengths and limitations that might impact on the possibility of adopting them in the future.

Using corn-based ethanol might be an alternative to using petroleum. However, studies that concluded that corn-based ethanol uses less net energy do not factor in the co-products of production. Current corn-ethanol technologies are much less petroleum intensive than gasoline however have the GHG emission levels similar to gasoline.[19] The literature is mainly unclear what the GHG emission changes would be by adopting corn-based ethanol for biodiesel. Some studies report a 20% increase in GHG emissions and some report a 32% decrease. However, the actual number might be a 13% decrease in GHG emissions which is not a significant decrease. The future of biodiesel might be adopting cellulose ethanol technology to produce biodiesel as that technology will contribute to a decrease in emissions.[19]

Renewable energy alternatives also exist. These include solar energy, wind energy, geothermal and hydroelectricity as well as other sources. These sources are said to have much lower emissions, and almost minimal secondary by products. The production of renewable energy is projected to grow in nearly every region in the World.[20] Natural gas is also seen as a potential alternative to oil. Natural gas is much cleaner than oil in terms of emissions.[21] However natural gas has its limitation in terms of mass production. For example, in order to switch from crude oil to natural gas there are technical and network changes that need to occur before the implementation can be complete. Two possible strategies are to first develop the end use technology first or second is to completely change the fuel infrastructure.[22]

Use of biomass instead of petroleum

Biomass is becoming a potential option as a substitute for petroleum. This is due to the increased environmental impacts of petroleum and the desire to reduce the use of petroleum. Potential substitutes include cellulose from fibrous plant materials as a substitute for oil-based products. Plastics can be created by cellulose instead of oil and plant fat can be substituted for oil to fuel cars. In order for biomass to succeed there needs to be an integration of different technologies to different biomass feedstock in to produce different bioproducts. Incentives for biomass are a decrease of carbon dioxide, need for a new energy supply and need to revitalize rural areas.[23]

Safety measures

There is also the potential to implement many technologies as safety measures to mitigate safety and health risks of the petroleum industry. These include measures to reduce oil spills, false floors to prevent gasoline drips in the water table and double-hulled tanker ships. A relatively new technology that can mitigate air pollution is called bio-filtration. Bio filtration is where off-gasses that have biodegradable VOCs or inorganic air toxins are vented out through a biologically active material. This technology successfully used in Germany and the Netherlands mainly for odor control. There are lower costs and environmental benefits include low energy requirements[24]

See also


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  2. Montagnolli, Renato Nallin; Lopes, Paulo Renato Matos; Bidoia, Ederio Dino (2015-02-01). "Screening the Toxicity and Biodegradability of Petroleum Hydrocarbons by a Rapid Colorimetric Method". Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. 68 (2): 342–353. doi:10.1007/s00244-014-0112-9. ISSN 0090-4341. PMID 25537922.
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  8. Tuccella, P.; Thomas, J. L.; Law, K. S.; Raut, J.-C.; Marelle, L.; Roiger, A.; Weinzierl, B.; Gon, H. A. C. Denier van der; Schlager, H. (2017-06-07). "Air pollution impacts due to petroleum extraction in the Norwegian Sea during the ACCESS aircraft campaign". Elem Sci Anth. 5: 25. doi:10.1525/elementa.124. ISSN 2325-1026.
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  11. Lingering Lessons of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Archived June 13, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
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  19. Farrell, Alexander E.; Plevin, Richard J.; Turner, Brian T.; Jones, Andrew D.; O'Hare, Michael; Kammen, Daniel M. (2006). "Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals". Science. 311 (5760): 506–508. doi:10.1126/science.1121416. JSTOR 3843407. PMID 16439656.
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