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Solutions from the Transportation Sector

The search is on for renewable fuels to replace petroleum. With so much effort going to fuels, why is so little attention being paid to replacing the petroleum used in motor oils and other lubricants? After all, it’s quite difficult to lubricate your car with wind or solar.

Obviously the fuel market is enormous.  However, the base stocks used for lubrication comes from crude oil as well.  If we are successful in displacing transportation fuels, we still need lubricant and right now, it comes primarily from crude oil, at the rate of .4 gallons per barrel.

The fuel market is approximately 100 times the size of the lubricant market, but it’s not unreasonable to argue that the pollution from motor oil is on par with fuels.  Emissions from fuel are highly regulated. Current technology does a great job reducing tailpipe emissions.  The same cannot be said of motor oil.

In 2011 the global lubricant market was 11.73 billion gallons.  What’s the fate of that oil?

* 4.22 billion gallons were lost in use, being leaked on the road or burned in the engine
* 1.94 billion gallons were illegally dumped, ending up in soil or down stormwater drains
* 4.13 billion gallons were collected and burned as fuel
* 10.29 billion gallons were lost directly to the environment. The balance was collected and
Re-refined into new lubricant base stock and for other uses. Global Used Oil Material Balance, 2011 Kline & Co.

The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) was signed into law in 1990, largely in response to rising public concern following the Exxon Valdez incident which spilled around 11 million gallons.

In fact, all oil spills over 10,000 tonnes, from 1901 to the present, from tanker accidents and drilling operations to storms and war total less than 2.7 billion gallons worldwide.

However, this total excludes “Silent Oil Spills.” Over 2.7 billion gallon of used oil is lost to the environment EVERY 100 DAYS across the globe from petroleum based lubricants.

“Studies completed in the last 20 years confirm that no spill is entirely benign. Further, there is no correlation between the size of a release and its impact. Instead, as in the real estate maxim, it’s all about “location, location, location.”  Oil in the Sea III Inputs, Fates, and Effects (2003)

The United States represents approximately 21% of the global market.  Pollution from petroleum- based lubricating oils cause diverse and widespread multimedia damage to the environment as well as to human health:

  • “The potential zinc, cadmium, copper and lead emissions from used oil-derived fuels from California are on the order of emissions from all of California’s major stationary sources combined.” Environmental Assessment of Used Oil Management Methods, Vol. 38 No. 2, 2004/Environmental Science & Technology
  • “Over 40% of pollution in America’s waterways is from used motor oil.” State of California, Department of Health Services, Toxic Substances Control Program. The No Waste Anthology. Department of Health Services, Office of Public Government Liaison – Education and Information Unit.
  • Thanks to developments by the USDA and their technology-transfer partner, Biosynthetic Technologies, a high-performing product now exists that can replace a portion of the petroleum used in motor oils and other lubricants with a safer, cleaner renewable alternative.  Isn’t it time we changed our oil?

Gregory D. Blake is the Director of Public & Government Relations of California based Biosynthetic Technologies