You've Seen {{progress}} Keep Scrolling
Return To Top

Oil is Changing

The oil industry is turning to dirtier and more dangerous sources of oil—and regulators haven't caught up.

Everyone uses gasoline.
Not everyone understands where it
comes from or how it's changing.

Most of oil's global warming emissions occur when it's used as a fuel in our cars and trucks. But oil also harms the climate when it's extracted and refined—processes that are both becoming dirtier, and which no one is talking about.

Where do you think oil comes from?
If it's easily-accessed underground reservoirs, you're (mostly) wrong.

Historically, most oil has come from underground reservoirs, but those sources are drying up. In their place are "unconventional oils"—resources previously thought too expensive to exploit. With consistencies as diverse as nail polish remover, window putty, and peanut butter, they don't look like the oil you know.

Oil today comes from many complex sources, each with profound environmental and climate impacts.

Making gasoline out of unconventional oil isn't easy, cheap, or clean. The climate emissions associated with extracting and refining crude oil now vary by a factor of five—from less than 50 kilograms per barrel to more than 250 kilograms a barrel.

Some wells have all but dried up, requiring more and more energy—and emissions—to extract and refine.

When oil wells age—some are over 100 years old—the pressure drops and the oil becomes thicker and difficult to work with. Extracting and refining oil from depleted wells takes additional energy, increasing the extraction-related climate pollution by as much as 100 percent.

Other oils are trapped inside rocks and require fracking to extract. This releases methane, a potent heat-trapping gas.

Recent growth in U.S. oil production comes from tight oil, a liquid oil that requires hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to extract. Fracking involves using high-pressure water and chemicals to break apart rock, which also releases methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas. Methane can be reinjected into the well, or used to generate electricity, but is often released or burned.

The dirtiest oils, such as tar sands, are so thick they must be mined or melted underground, consuming huge amounts of energy and generating tons of pollution.

Not all oil is liquid. Some of it isn't even viscous; Canada's tar sands, for example, have the consistency of vegetable shortening, and are either mined like rock, or liquefied with large injections of superheated steam. Because their extraction and refining processes are so energy-intensive, tar sands are among the dirtiest sources of oil in the world.

So what's the solution?

1. Use less oil.

The first step to reducing oil's impacts is simple: use less of it. Drivers can buy fuel-efficient vehicles, or electric cars that don't use gasoline at all. And policy makers can support forward-looking transportation policies at every level of government—from local smart growth initiatives to federal fuel economy standards for cars and trucks.

2. Know more about the oil we ARE using.

Transparency is desperately needed. Despite the enormous climate ramifications, less is known about the oil that makes up 90 percent of gasoline than about the ethanol in the remaining 10 percent. The oil industry should fully disclose extraction and refining-related emissions—and regulators should require it.


3. Hold the industry accountable.

Like other energy producers, oil companies have a responsibility to cut pollution from their own operations. Flaring natural gas, for example, is wasteful and unnecessary. And as the nation works to tackle global warming, the oil industry shouldn't stand in the way of climate science or policy—especially considering their history of deception and misinformation.

You can help too

Rotate Your