By George R. Pilcher, The ChemQuest Group and The ChemQuest Technology Institute

I would like to begin this article with a study in “perspective,” an exercise that man alone, among all living creatures, is capable of undertaking.

Working forward from the distant past:

  • 240 years ago—The beginning of the Fossil Fuel Age; natural gas first used to light houses and streets
  • 130-140 years ago—Coal burned to produce heat for homes; oil followed almost immediately
  • 100 years from now—The currently anticipated depletion of proven oil and natural gas reserves
  • 150 years from now—The currently anticipated depletion of proven coal reserves
  • 180 years from now—End of the “Fossil Fuel Age” (Lasted ~420 years)

Human civilizations have actively occupied the Planet Earth for the past 6,000 years, and for 5,760 of those years, man depended upon wood and peat as sources of material to be burned for both heat and light. Only for the past 240 years have fossil fuels (e.g., coal; crude oil and its various derivatives; natural gas; and bitumen) played a significant role in civilized societies, and—of this short timespan—they have only played major, “front and center” roles in the generation of power for less than a century-and-a-half. Based upon the best currently available estimates, fossil fuels will be depleted within this same timeframe: the coming century-and-a-half. Roughly 400 years out of a total of 6,000 years of civilization. Think about this, and let this staggering fact sink in.

Fossil fuels have, from the very beginning, been combusted principally as sources of heat, light, and energy, amounting to an 85% share for fossil fuels in primary energy consumption in the world, which represent ~93% of all fossil fuel consumption. NOTE: Non-fossil sources included nuclear (4.3%), hydroelectric (6.4%), and other renewables (5.0%, including geothermal, solar, tidal, wind, wood, and waste). 1 These numbers represent only fossil fuel consumption which is combusted for the generation of energy. What about the myriad “other uses” category, containing a vast number of chemicals routinely derived from fossil fuel feedstocks? Over the past decade, non-combustion consumption of fossil fuels has typically accounted for about 7% of total fossil fuel consumption. 2

Fossil fuels can be consumed, but not combusted, when they are used directly as construction materials, chemical feedstocks, lubricants, solvents, waxes, and other products. Common examples include petroleum products used in plastics, natural gas used in fertilizers, and coal tars used in skin treatment products. In 2017, about 13% of total petroleum products consumed were for non-combustion use. Natural gas non-combustion use accounted for about 3% of total natural gas, while non-combustible chemicals derived from coal represented less than 1% of coal use.2 For all intents and purposes, the organic raw material requirements for the entire paint and coatings industry consist of “non-combusted” fossil fuels, which means that it isn’t a large slice—less than 2% of all fossil fuel consumption. Nonetheless, as fossil fuels become scarcer, they are likely to be shifted from the “other uses” category to sustain energy production, so the need for industries like paint and coatings to convert to sustainable products and processes with be even more intense in the future. This is a sobering thought that receives great lip service throughout the global paint and coatings industry, but dismayingly little substantive action.

Much has been made of “green” chemistry for plastics, fuel, and paints and coatings. This makes eminently good sense, because petroleum-based chemistries will eventually require alternatives—there is only so much oil in the ground, and no more. Replacing fossil fuels and fossil-based chemicals, however, cannot happen overnight, nor should it.

For chemical-based industries, the ability to make environmentally sustainable changes in the long term require sustainable profits and cash flow in the short term. “Green” chemistry development continues, but to what degree does it affect the various segments of the coatings industry? These chemistries from novel, non-petroleum sources are often more expensive than their petroleum-based analogs. With crude oil prices displaying frenetic behavior over the past 12 months, going from an historic low of -$37.64 per barrel on April 20, 2020 (unleashing a barrage of articles in news services globally, and causing oil stocks to drop) to $64.60 per barrel on March 17, 2021, with a likely average price for 2021f (forecast) of the mid-$50s per barrel, can these new chemistries make a sufficiently sizable entrée into the various coatings segments and regional markets for them to acquire and maintain a solid, commercially viable foothold? The COVID-19 pandemic set many dominoes tumbling into each other, and each domino that hits the ground has the potential to affect any number of economic forces that may put a damper on significant growth in biosourced material for paint and coatings, at least for the near-term future. The more important question, however, is “SHOULD relatively low average prices for crude put a damper on significant growth in biosourced material for paint and coatings?” In my view, the answer is a qualified “NO.”

Why “qualified,” and why “NO”? To address these two questions, it is necessary to begin defining the long-term issues that are currently, and indiscriminately, represented by “green,” “sustainable,” “biosourced,” “recyclable,” and a few other terms. Such terms have heretofore been used by some writers and advocates in limited, even specific, terms; in general, however, they tend to be used interchangeably, which dramatically dilutes both their meaning and their ability to address both change and the actions necessary to effect change.