"The stone age did not end because the world ran out of stones, And the oil age will not end because the world will run out of oil."
Scott Noesen, director of sustainable development at Dow Chemical, quoted Lovins in his opening address at the conference, which was sponsored in Chicago by the American Oil Chemists' Society (AOCS). According to Noesen, major chemical companies are anticipating fundamental changes in what they make and sell as economic, environmental, and political pressures force industry to rely less on petroleum products. Significant research efforts are under way to replace established raw materials with products like plant oils--such as soybean oil--animal oils, and agricultural waste, he said.
The first wave of renewable or biotech products is already replacing petroleum-based raw materials in large commodity markets such as plastics, fibers, and fuels. These products come in direct contact with consumers and are thus marketed foremost as "green." In fuels, there is also regulatory momentum behind products such as biodiesel.
The second wave--specialty products--consists of materials sold primarily to industry. The main drivers behind their acceptance as replacements for petrochemicals will be price and performance.
That acceptance has been a lot slower than some were anticipating 20 years ago. "Oil prices peaked over $40 per barrel in the 1970s, and people predicted that renewable resources were bound to be more competitive and the wave of the future," said consultant Robert T. Betz, who chaired the AOCS meeting. Betz, a former U.S. head of the oleochemical producer Cognis, said the drop in oil prices in the 1990s slowed development considerably, but the price of a barrel of oil is now at an all-time high, and supply is a concern. "Each decade gets more severe," he said. "We know there is a limit to fossil resources, but we don't know what it is. Our political situation and the balance of payments are such that one wonders, if not now, when? When will it all come together?"
Plastics can come from plants, fuels can come from plants, synthetic fibers can come from plants, more and more green alternatives are being developed as the price of oil skyrockets.
Of course, the yet to be answered question is, can we grow our lifestyle and still feed everyone? The limit to growth is still the fundamental part of the equation that needs to be filled in.