fossil fuelCan we really ever move beyond petroleum? Traditional fossil fuels like coal and petroleum are so ingrained in our culture and way of life that eradicating them as fuel sources soon is unlikely. We need to think about what we produce and the costs that go beyond the balance sheet:  the costs to the environment, to the people that live where our raw materials originate, the cost of the life of a pelican, gull or fish.  It is our personal responsibility to consume less and conserve more.

by Derrick Mains, CEO of GreenNurture. Follow Derrick on Twitter at @enviralmentalst.

As the days go by and the environmental disaster continues to unfold in the Gulf, a question arises: Can we really ever move beyond petroleum? Alternative fuels, solar, wind and the like all hold some promise for the future, but traditional fossil fuels like coal and petroleum are so ingrained in our culture and way of life that eradicating them as fuel sources soon is unlikely.

Hidden under various ingredient names, petroleum is used in so many things other than just fuel, it is almost mind boggling: from the makeup you wear, to your toothpaste, the diapers you put on your child, to the computer you are reading this on, dentures, bubble gum, lipstick, moisturizers. Even some brands of vinegar use petroleum.  Similarly, coal is such a large part of our infrastructure that moving away from the industry is unlikely in the short term. Almost half of the electricity used in this country comes from coal-fired plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

So what do we do?

Some would tell us that technology will save us, but no matter how good or safe the technology will become there will always be an impact and a risk. Too often we have thought of environmental impact as the carbon footprint of a product, and we have forgotten the core principles behind environmentalism, which are the reduction of pollution, the protection of biodiversity and species, and as the dominant species on the planet, the continuation of life itself.  The Gulf spill will have a very small carbon footprint and an even smaller impact on global warming – but its effects will be felt for generations by all of us, flora and fauna included.

We, as environmentalists, have spent too much time and effort on issues that are difficult for the average American to grasp: the “hell fire and brimstone” of global warming and the complex tonnage equations of our carbon footprints and how best to offset them. We have spent far too little on the core principles and foundations of the environmental movement. Both global warming and carbon footprints have significant scientific proof, but because their theories and tangibility are difficult to grasp, it is hard to convince the

It’s time for full cost accounting and measuring the origin impact. We have to think beyond the carbon footprint or the cost of the raw materials. We need to think about what we produce and the costs that go beyond the balance sheet:  the costs to the environment, to the people that live where our raw materials originate, the cost of the life of a pelican, gull or fish. It’s time that we assign someone to represent future generations that think of our impact on them. The cost for blowing up a mountain to access its coal should be much greater than the price paid to the landowner for the land. The cost of the deterioration or destruction of an ecosystem must be much greater than the cost of buying access to its stream or paying a usage fee to a local community.

What is the value of a tree, a flower, a mountain or a stream? I would argue their value is incalculable. But in order to move forward, we must value them, and the cost for using them should benefit the common good, the environment itself.

Recent events make it clear that we need to change. Unfortunately for those reading this, we will not stop our dependence on oil and coal in our lifetimes. We, then, have an even greater role, one that rarely gets any press or attention: personal responsibility to consume less and conserve more.

© 2010, Derrick Mains. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Derrick Mains (1 Articles)

Derrick Mains is the CEO of GreenNurture, the corporate sustainability software company. harnesses the collective intelligence of employees to drive sustainability efforts forward around social, environmental and financial performance. The resulting analytics provide the necessary intelligence for decision-makers and offer transparency to stakeholders. Mains has a deep understanding of Corporate Social Responsibility, having been involved in recycling, sustainability and product stewardship initiatives for the Fortune 1000. His efforts have been seen on more than five billion consumer products globally. Mains is also the host of “Your Triple Bottom Line,” a Phoenix-based radio show focused on the business of sustainability. Mains can be reached at and followed on Twitter at @enviralmentalst.

  • Elmo

    So, what is it exactly that you propose?

  • http://longislandexaminer/x58804. Denise Harkless

    You present some things I had not even thought about. Like not acheving dependency on Gas and Oil in our lifetime. Also, what do you propose us to do about it. Write to your Senators and Congress and tell them the things you wrote about or read it? Thank you for your informative article. Denise H.

  • BrookeBF

    Hey Derrick –

    You are right – it is highly unlikely that we will ween ourselves off of oil and coal in our lifetimes. (as we speak, the coal lobby is doing back-flips to stop the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers from impacting their cash cow.)

    We are like addicts. And we are going to have to figure out our collective 12-step program to get ourselves off of this dangerous and destructive drug. I suppose the first step is to really realize and admit we have a serious problem. If we can start to take stock of the many impacts on our lives – it will at least help us become aware. As we learn more about the true impacts of our “stuff”, we will become more conscious of how much of it we are wasting or under-utilizing.

    The best general guidance we have is to look to nature and natural systems as examples to follow. Biomimcry is a new buzz word for that reason – mimic nature and we have better chances of stumbling on sustainable models. For instance, animals at the top of their ecosystems don’t kill more than they need. And ecosystems are collaborative efforts – meaning the lion and the vulture work together to get all of the value out of their ‘meal’.

    Hope you are doing well and that Green Nurture is making a huge and awesome impact for companies wrestling with their sustainability issues. Cheers!

    @BrookeBF from @RecycleMatch

  • Derrick Mains

    Thank you all for the comments!

    Brooke’s assessment is correct – this is a “12 step program”. There is no quick easy fix. The solution will come, but it is likely “we” will never lay eyes on an economy (or existence) that is not based on carbon. The challenge in resolution not coming in our lifetime is that we as human beings tend to think of things based upon our finite lives – and that is more evident today than ever before in history.

    When my grandparents came to America they had one objective – to give their children and grandchildren a better life than they had. Today our society is a bit more selfish and centered on the here and and now. Sure we want things to be better for our children – just as long as they are exceptionally good for us.

    There are many reasons for this – one being the dramatic increase in luxury, another is cycle of communication (and thus our attention span) has been shortened, today we think in terms of sound bites instead of decades or generations (particularly when it comes to politic motivation). So the solution has to be multi tiered and it must start with what I ended my article with – “personal responsibility”. The challenge with change is is that we all tend to like it but only when it happens to someone else. Everyone is a fan of personal responsibility until the rubber meets the road.

    So the first step is taking personal responsibility and thinking of our consumption outside of the carbon footprint or recyclability we must think beyond these things and focus more attention on their impact on future generations. We also must look at our impact realistically from the food we eat to the cars we drive – we can’t just look at one thing and use that as our benchmark.

    The same thing needs to happen in corporate America – having CEO’s that are not completely beholden to quarterly earnings but have the ability to think about creating a 50 year plan will create a culture of “corporate responsibility” that will benefit future generations.

    Government can and should lead the way with corporate responsibility by incentivizing companies today to invest and participate in a better tomorrow.

    Lastly (as far as this post is concerned) we need czar’s! People appointed to companies and government that are have a voice and authority to look out for future generations. An individual or department that thinks about our actions today and their impact 50 or 100 years from now and is tasked with protecting the assets of those future generations.

    The Amish say – we do not inherit the land from our fathers we borrow it from our children. We need people who are responsible to represent the future and speak for it.

  • Dehran Duckworth

    Hey guys, here is a very cool article I found on this subject;

    “The seeds of a humble weed could lower a jet fuel’s cradle-to-grave carbon emissions by 84 percent. Camelina sativa is an oilseed crop and it might be used as fuel in aircrafts in the near future. A study conducted at Michigan Technological University claimed that Camelina has shown to be one of the more promising alternatives to petroleum jet fuel. They studied the whole process i.e. from planting to airplane’s tailpipe. David Shonnard, Robbins Chair Professor of Chemical Engineering, studied the carbon dioxide emissions of jet fuel made from Camelina oil. He elaborates, “Camelina jet fuel exhibits one of the largest greenhouse gas emission reductions of any agricultural feedstock-derived biofuel I’ve ever seen. This is the result of the unique attributes of the crop – its low fertilizer requirements, high oil yield, and the availability of its co-products, such as meal and biomass, for other uses.”

    Let’s learn something about Camelina. Camelina sativa belongs to the mustard family. Camelina sativa’s origin can be traced to Europe. It is also known as false flax or gold-of-pleasure. It offers certain benefits. It is a dry-land crop, needs little nitrogen and can be grown in rotation with wheat. It boosts the strength of the soil. Shonnard shares his knowledge, “After a Camelina crop the land is returned ‘rested’ and ready for another 3 or 4 years of wheat cultivation.” If you are growing Camelina you don’t have to worry about ‘investment’ because it requires minimal input. So if we talk in the language of economics the cost of production is significantly lower than other alternative fuel crops. David Shonnard shares another benefit of the crop, “Camelina is a short season crop (85 to 100 days) and is frost tolerant so it can be planted early. We can use excess Camelina oil as feedstock for animals. Eastern Washington, Montana, and the Dakotas are cultivating Camelina. But we should remember that if the demand increases it can be cultivated in other dry areas of U.S.A. We can bring more uncultivated area under this crop too.”

    Camelina oil seems right for the conversion to a hydrocarbon green jet fuel. It meets or sometimes exceeds all petroleum jet fuel specifications. Camelina oil is companionable with existing fuel infrastructure, so we don’t have to invest heavily on that account. Shonnard shares his opinion, “It is almost an exact replacement for fossil fuel. Jets can’t use oxygenated fuels like ethanol; they have to use hydrocarbon replacements.”

    Boeing executive Billy Glover, who is the managing director of environmental strategy, says about Camelina oil, “It performed as well if not better than traditional jet fuel during our test flight with Japan Airlines earlier this year and supports our goal of accelerating the market availability of sustainable, renewable fuel sources that can help aviation reduce emissions. It’s clear from the life cycle analysis that Camelina is one of the leading near-term options and, even better, it’s available today.”

    Though there are a few hiccups such as price and availability of commercial-scale quantities of second generation feedstocks. Farmers should also be taken into confidence about growing a new crop. And refineries too should be willing to process it. If such hurdles can be taken care of, it can create job and income opportunities in rural areas.”

    My general purpose for posting such an article is to bring more public awareness to the benefits of oilseed crops in general, which all share varying degrees of the benefits laid out in this article of Camelina Sativa. Oilseed crops also share a good deal of discreditation and myths surrounding their impact on world food supplies with respect to being grown for fuel, which the facts always debunk, as this data on Camilina does, and the data I have posted below from the National Biodiesel board website regarding soy and rapeseed production,;

    “According to a study by Drs. Van Dyne and Raymer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, the average US farm consumes fuel at the rate of 82 litres per hectare (8.75 US gal/acre) of land to produce one crop. However, average crops of rapeseed produce oil at an average rate of 1,029 L/ha (110 US gal/acre), and high-yield rapeseed fields produce about 1,356 L/ha (145 US gal/acre). The ratio of input to output in these cases is roughly 1:12.5 and 1:16.5”.

    Soy production in gallons/ acre is less than rapeseed, 60-100 gal/acre/ season.

    “U.S. biodiesel reduces lifecycle carbon emissions by 60 to 80 percent, depending on the source, making it the best carbon reduction tool of any liquid fuel commercially available. Biodiesel is the first advanced biofuel to make it to market. It has the highest energy balance of any fuel, returning 4.5 units of energy for every unit of fossil energy needed to produce it. New cropland is not needed to make biodiesel because it is generally produced from co-products of crops already being grown. From 2004 to 2008, when U.S. biodiesel production climbed from 25 million to 700 million gallons, soybean acres here stayed virtually the same, and soybean acres in Brazil decreased.
    There are surplus stocks of U.S. fats and oils sufficient to meet near and medium term biodiesel target volumes.”