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What is oil used for?

More than 80 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil are produced every day around the world. Much of this comes from the big three oil producers – the USA, Russia, and Saudi Arabia – but more than half still comes from smaller producers around the world.

Of course, much of this is converted into fuels of various types, but what other applications does it have? The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) provides some good information about how oil is used in the United States, which is the world’s biggest oil consumer.


The EIA estimates that about 14 million bpd (about 71% of total consumption) of oil was used each day in 2017 for transport. Finished motor gasoline, the American version of petrol for sale at the pump, alone accounted for 9.33 million bpd of this (some 47% of total US consumption), making it the most-consumed petroleum product in the country.

Distillate fuels

In second at 3.93 million bpd (20% of total consumption) place is distillate fuel, such as heating oil and diesel. While diesel is used in some passenger cars, it is mostly used to fuel heavier vehicles like trains, trucks, boats, and buses, and well as heavy construction vehicles. It’s also used in some electricity generators. Heating oil, meanwhile, can be used to generate electricity in power plants or to provide domestic or industrial heating.

Hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL)

Third on the list are hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL) at 2.64 million bpd of oil on average. Oil and gas is processed at oil refineries and natural gas processing plants to produce familiar gases like ethane, propane, and butane. Propane is particularly heavily used, with applications like cooking, heating, and drying clothes or crops. It can even be used as a vehicle fuel.

Despite originally being regarded as a nuisance by-product, HGLs are particularly useful because they span the gas-liquid divide. They are gases at lower pressure and liquid at higher pressures, making them easy to store and transport in pressurised containers. They are also used as a feedstock for the petrochemical industry to make plastics, chemicals, and synthetic rubber, and as a thinning agent for transporting heavy crude.

Jet fuels

As a vast country with international links, it’s no surprise that much of the oil ends up as jet fuel, accounting for 1.68 million bpd on average in 2017.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, let’s look at where lubricants sit in this picture. Given that every vehicle needs oil and industry relies on adequate lubrication to keep its machinery going, you may expect it to be quite high. The IEA estimates that just 0.121 million bpd of oil is used for lubricants like Mobil DTE 24, representing just 0.6% of total US oil consumption.

A typical mineral oil typically comprises 90% or more base oils derived from crude oil, with the remainder being additives that help reduce friction, adjust the viscosity, protect against water and corrosion, reduce wear, and so on. Even the synthetic hydrocarbons used in synthetic lubricants are often ultimately derived from petroleum.

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