February 2020

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Executive Viewpoint: Fuels and petrochemicals will continue to help humanity thrive

A 15-yr rise in U.S. exports of refined products continued in 2019 with the nation exporting more than ever, underscoring the importance of these products to fueling a growing world. In the latter half of the last decade, U.S. petrochemical production capacity increased—with more than $20 B invested in domestic petrochemical projects in the last 2 yr alone—and exports of petrochemicals and petrochemical feedstocks rose, as well.

Thompson, C., American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM)

A 15-yr rise in U.S. exports of refined products continued in 2019 with the nation exporting more than ever, underscoring the importance of these products to fueling a growing world. In the latter half of the last decade, U.S. petrochemical production capacity increased—with more than $20 B invested in domestic petrochemical projects in the last 2 yr alone—and exports of petrochemicals and petrochemical feedstocks rose, as well.

It is difficult not to see these trends in the context of another: the number of people living in extreme poverty across the globe has dropped precipitously in recent decades, from 28% of the world population in 2000 to 16% in 2010 to an estimated 8.6% in 2018—a milestone that means healthier lives and more opportunities for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Every second, five people join the global middle class, which is expected to reach 5.3 B by 2050.

U.S. fuel and petrochemical manufacturers have been crucial in this transformation, making affordable fuels that enable transportation, home heating and cooking, and petrochemical products that facilitate food, water and health-care systems, among countless other solutions integral to daily life and foundational to thriving, vibrant communities.

We have also witnessed signs of progress in the U.S. The U.S. population has increased by 30% in the past 30 yr and the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) has grown nearly 99% since 1990. The U.S. fuel and petrochemical industries have been critical to that growing prosperity through the products they enable, the nearly 4 MM jobs they generate, and the hundreds of billions of dollars of economic activity they spur each year.

Now, our society stands at the dawn of a new decade, grappling with questions about the best path forward for the U.S. and for humanity, as the United Nations estimates the world population will increase by 2 B people over the next 30 yr.

While demand for fuel and petrochemical products is projected to increase for decades to come to serve an expanding population in need of energy and products of all kinds, there is a growing dialogue about what it means to operate sustainably, and how petroleum-derived fuels and petrochemicals fit into a culture that is concerned for our shared environment, mindful of our changing climate, and eager to take action to ensure a better world for the next generation.

Positioned at an intersection where precious natural resources are transformed into valuable, life-enhancing products, fuel and petrochemical manufacturers have unique perspectives, insights and capabilities to inform solutions and policies. The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) acknowledges that climate change is real, and is committed to the development of sound policies that enable our members to supply the fuel and petrochemicals that growing global populations and economies need to thrive, and to do so in an environmentally sustainable way.

That is why, for the past 3 yr, AFPM has led the effort to advocate for a 95-research octane number (RON) fuel standard that would deliver significant efficiency improvements in new vehicles, yielding substantial reductions in carbon emissions across the vehicle fleet.

When paired with automobiles optimized for such fuel, 95-RON can deliver a 3%–4% fuel efficiency gain and have the carbon-reduction equivalency of taking hundreds of thousands of vehicles off the road each year. This 95-RON fuel could be sold using the nation’s existing fueling infrastructure, not requiring the significant investments needed for electric vehicle charging stations and infrastructure, and is compatible with vehicles on the road today. Our organization has worked hand-in-hand with automakers to develop this proposal and continue to advocate for its adoption.

Beyond advocating for 95-RON, AFPM is committed to continuously improving the efficiency and sustainability of our members’ operations and ensuring they can continue to offer fuels and petrochemicals that make engines and other products more efficient. As two industries served by some of the brightest minds and most creative problem-solvers of our time, we are also pursuing research, innovation and the application of new technologies and products.

Some of our members are researching new ways to capture carbon at facilities.1 Others are developing new engine oils that reduce friction and boost gas mileage.2

Our members’ petrochemicals are used to make vehicle components that are as strong as steel but far lighter, enabling increases in fuel economy. Furthermore, many of our members are leading the way on chemical recycling of plastics, moving beyond basic mechanical recycling to help tackle the global plastic waste issue and making plastics more sustainable and recyclable.

Unfortunately, our industries are too often excluded from the dialogue on climate policies and sustainability issues. Various proposals have been put forth by politicians and political hopefuls in recent months to demonstrate commitments to lowering emissions and addressing our changing climate—from electric vehicle mandates to plastic bans to calling for an end of fossil fuels in the next 10 yr.

These ideas completely overlook the irreplaceable role that petroleum-derived fuels and petrochemicals play in improving lives in the U.S. and around the world, and the essential role they will play in serving a growing population in decades to come.

We must challenge our leaders to consider a more holistic picture of modern life and the products that enable it when developing the laws and rules that govern us. Policies addressing climate change must be balanced and measured to improve quality of life, ensuring that the long-term economic, energy and environmental needs of humanity are met.

As we look ahead to the next year, decade and beyond, there is no question that U.S. fuel and petrochemical manufacturers and the products they produce will help humanity thrive. I am optimistic about our shared future and look forward to working with all stakeholders to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. HP

LITERATURE CITED

  1. “A sponge to soak up CO2 is in the works,” ExxonMobil, online: https://energyfactor.exxonmobil.com/news/mosaic-ccs/
  2. Tullo, A., “Engine oil becomes critical as automakers look to boost gas mileage,” Chemical & Engineering News, February 2019.

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