One of the easily refuted mistakes Bill McKibben makes in his “Do the Math” theory is forgetting about the non-fuel use of oil. Even if it is correct that 80 percent of the oil can’t be burned, that does not mean it needs to stay in the ground. And it doesn’t mean that the value goes down to zero, as McKibben seems to think. Owners of the oil fields can still sell oil, as long as it is not used for fuel purposes.
Therefore it is of interest to find out the scale of non-fuel use right now. Unfortunately, that is not very easy to do. It took me some time to find some numbers on this strategically very important question.
Let’s start out with some numbers from the American government.
The total for all finished petroleum products for 2012 is given as 4,413,228,000 barrels.
For the same year, “petrochemical feedstocks” was 111,755,000 barrels (this number and all following from the source linked above).
Lubricants was at 57,594,000 barrels.
Misc. products (non-fuel use) was at 29,259,000 barrels.
Asphalt and road oil was at 127,703,000 barrels.
Petroleum coke was at 310,481,000 barrels. Part of that is used as fuel, just like coal, and other parts are used for anodes in the steel and aluminum industries. Since about 75% of World petroleum coke is used as fuel, I’ll add 25% of that, or 77,620,250 barrels, of non-fuel use from this category.
Propylene was at 100,924,000 barrels.
Adding up all of the above, I get 504,825,250 barrels of non-fuel oil use in 2012. That is around 11.4 percent of the total. So let’s just estimate that non-fuel oil use is around ten percent right now.
That percentage needs to get way up. In a future without fossil fuel, one hundred percent of oil use needs to be non-fuel use.
There might be a problem with that, however.
At least right now, refineries are not built so as to convert for example one barrel of oil completely into one barrel of anode grade petroleum coke. Refining oil is a process where you start out with oil and get a large number of different petroleum products by separating the oil into its components. Most of those are fuels. So if one wants to limit the use of oil to one hundred percent non-fuel use, one would need a way to change gasoline, diesel, kerosene, heating oil, and fuel grade petroleum coke to some useful non-fuel product. It may be possible, but that’s certainly not how things are done right now.
An alternative might be to extract the non-fuel useful products, and then just stockpile the fuels.
Anyway, that would be a potential problem for a future where burning oil as a fuel is illegal.
However, the basic point is still valid. Saying that you can’t burn oil does not mean you can’t use oil for non-fuel purposes. That in turn means that there is no way the value of oil reserves goes down to zero, as Bill McKibben mistakenly asserts.