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California oil refinery at dusk

The glare of lights from this California oil refinery isn't its only use of electricity. It can take 140kWh of electric power to refine a single barrel of oil into gasoline.

America's Irrational Petroleum Dependence

For the amount of electricity it takes to refine oil, we could leave the crude in the ground.

By Doug Korthof

It takes 8% to 12% of the energy in a barrel of oil to refine it into gasoline.

Oil extraction and refining is the largest industrial user of electric and natural gas in California (about 12% of the national market for cars, gas and the car culture, more than our share by population). There are other costs: for example, 20 gallons of federally-subsidized potable water, the amortized cost of exploration, transport, distribution, cleanup, etc.

The electricity used to refine oil alone would power cars further than what's in the rest of the barrel

Now, a simple calculation shows that, of the approximately 1470 kWh of potential energy in a 42-gallon barrel of oil, it takes about 140 kWh of electric and natural gas to refine the oil into appx. 44 gallons of "refined products", diesel, gasoline, heavy oil, etc.

With simple "ceteris parabus" (all things being equal) assumptions, the 140 kWh of energy used to refine that barrel would propel an average EV (or CNG car) at least 640 miles and as much as 840 miles, depending on the type of all-electric car. The EV1 would go 6 miles on one kWh; the RAV4-EV small SUV might go as little as 3 miles on one kWh, so the average would be somewhere in between.

The rest of the barrel, if all converted to gasoline or its equivalent, would yield about 1300 kWh of energy in the burnable fuel (remember, we're subtracting the energy to process the barrel of oil), or about 38 gallons of gas, enough to take the average Internal Combustion ("IC") car about 760 miles (at our fleet average of 20 mpg).

So, as a nation, we use 140 kWh of electric to produce 1300 kWh of IC fuel to go 760 miles, even if some cars use more and others use less. Thus, you can see that the modest use of hybrids that can't plug-in is not going to change this dynamic in the slightest. All it does is allow the hybrid drivers to relieve some guilt and feel better about themselves; as a people, we ALL contribute to this charade.

Using low-cost electric and "free" natural gas to refine the barrel of oil is really just an energy transferrence, a way of storing energy in the form that we, as a society, think it should be used best -- as high-energy fuel for IC cars.

This pattern, of profligate energy usage (not to say waste) to produce the kind of fuel that produces the most money, is repeated again and again.

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