Whenever I hear – as I frequently do – well-intended environmentalists rail against the use of chemicals associated with oil and gas production, I have to scratch my head. Chemicals are widely and beneficially used in every aspect of our daily lives and, yes, many of those uses are linked to fossil fuels.

Let’s start with the obvious.

Before 1900, most people rarely traveled beyond a few miles from their homes, with transportation options limited to walking, horseback, or horse-drawn coaches and wagons. The development of the internal combustion engine powered by gasoline, combined with the introduction of mass-produced, affordable cars and trucks, got people moving on an unprecedented scale. And we haven’t looked back since.

In the early days, oil production was far less complicated than it is now, as were gasoline and diesel fuels. Early vehicles and even those produced until the 1960s provided virtually unlimited mobility, but also generated emissions that compromised air quality and human health. Nowhere was this truer than in California and particularly Los Angeles, where the car culture enabled an explosion of suburban development and the commuter lifestyle. But thanks to innovation and chemistry, our vehicles and fuels are now cleaner than anywhere else.

In-state oil production and refining, utilizing state-of-the-art chemicals and technology, are subject to the nation’s strictest environmental regulations. California’s reformulated gasoline is literally the cleanest on the planet. It’s produced at state-of-the art manufacturers, many of which are located in Los Angeles, where consumers coincidentally use more fuel than anywhere else in the state.

Without oil and gas, Angelenos would be unable to get to work and school; the supermarket shelves would be bare. And without aviation fuel, they’d literally be grounded, making business travel and vacations far less practical and affordable.

Wide reach

Fossil fuel use in our homes doesn’t stop in the garage. Petroleum products and the chemicals inherent in their manufacture and transport permeate virtually everything we touch. It’s also incorporated into the siding, roofs, and insulation of our houses, appliances, furniture, carpets and flooring. Not to mention the strongest military in the world as well as our clothing, sporting equipment, cosmetics, and a host of other essentials and comforts.

Our food is grown, processed, packaged, and transported using farm equipment, fertilizers, facilities and trucks that use fossil fuels. Have health problems? Medicines, surgical equipment, antibiotics, heart valves, pacemakers, joint replacements, and health-enhancing products all contain some form of petroleum.

From the days of the industrial revolution, fossil fuels have enhanced our lives, making possible sewage treatment, sanitation, and water purification systems; irrigation; and mass production of manufactured goods. Without those chemical ingredients contributed by fossil fuels, we would be reverting back to the pre-1900 horse-and-buggy days for our transportation systems, an abundance of “green” electricity, and the “snake oil” pitchmen for our health care system, and thus no medications, no cosmetics, no fertilizers, and no computers or iPhones.

This is not to say there is no room for other forms of energy, such as wind and solar, but we must be cognizant that wind and solar are only able to provide intermittent electricity to the grid, and are incapable of producing the chemical ingredients that have contributed to the basis of our standard of living.

California’s intermittent solar and wind electricity facilities still require the support of natural gas power plants to keep the lights on and our economy humming, and despite advances in hydrogen- and electric-transportation technologies, it will be decades before they are affordable and reliable enough to completely transform the market. And their widespread introduction, while diminishing certain environmental impacts of fossil fuels, will present chemical and pollutant challenges of their own.

Fossil fuels and associated chemicals have dramatically improved our health and environment from the 1900s, and provided the energy necessary to support the standard of living we enjoy today. While some might choose to demonize them, for most of us the benefits are cause for celebration and far outweigh the negatives.

Ronald Stein is founder of PTS Staffing Solutions, a technical staffing agency headquartered in Irvine.

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