Posted June 23, 2016
Yogi Bear isn’t the only one with a fondness for a pic-a-nic basket.
There’s just something about spreading out a blanket on a patch of grass, pulling out a nice, cold beverage of your choice and eating a tasty, mobile meal in the open air with your favorite people. You know, “It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy.”
Even in button-downed D.C., it’s pretty common to see people in their workday best, eating on a park bench or taking off their high heels and tucking their ties in their shirts and sitting under a tree to enjoy their lunch al fresco. The fresh air makes everything taste better, even if it’s a humble turkey sandwich from home.
Our love affair with picnics is long and storied. Although people have been eating outside since folks first emerged from caves, the formal idea of the picnic most likely was invented by the French. Shortly after the French Revolution, the Royal Gardens were opened to the public for the first time. For the French it became the new common pastime – visiting the gardens and taking along a meal. Its name is believed to come from “pique-nique”—a rhyming combination of the Old French “piquer” that means “to pick, peck,” and “benique,” or “thing of little importance.” The French also are responsible for the largest picnic gathering. In 2000, the entire country held a 600-mile-long picnic to celebrate the first Bastille Day of the new millennium.
Sure, a picture-perfect picnic seems like a humble affair, but there’s actually a lot of energy behind this simple summertime pleasure. From the production of the food and beverages you enjoy to the pesky ants we’re forever trying to keep at bay, energy plays a big role in your portable feast.
Picnics can be as simple as crusty bread, fresh fruit and a wedge of cheese, or an array of sandwiches, salads and sweet home-made treats. But let’s say flame-broiled fare is more your taste, and you prefer to take command of the grill. After all, 75 percent of households own an outdoor barbecue, grill or smoker, and nearly one-third of grill owners (31 percent) grilled someplace other than their homes in the past year, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.
The clear winner when it comes to fuel for those grills is clean-burning propane and natural gas (62 percent), followed by charcoal (53 percent) and electricity (12 percent). In fact, propane, the most common liquefied petroleum gas (LP-gas), is one of the nation's most versatile sources of energy and supplies about 1.6 percent of our total energy needs.
Approximately 99 percent of the United States’ propane supply was produced in North America in 2012. About 72 percent of total U.S. propane supply came from U.S. and Canadian natural gas liquids, while 25.2 percent of the total was produced by U.S. crude oil refineries from domestic and imported crude, alongside production of gasoline and distillate fuel oil. Thus, propane is a readily available, secure energy source whose environmental benefits are widely recognized.
You’ll also need to cool and transport your food and beverages, probably in plastic containers nestled inside an ice chest or cooler, all of which are products derived from refined petroleum. So is the sunscreen and bug repellant you take along. After all, when an ant visits your picnic, it lays down a scent as it returns to the nest for the other ants to follow, and you definitely don’t want all those uninvited guests.
Energy, in the form of natural gas, is used to manufacture many of these items, as both a raw material and as a source of heat. Natural gas is an ingredient used to make fertilizer, plastics and fabrics. It is also used to manufacture a wide range of chemicals such as ammonia, methanol, butane, ethane, propane and acetic acid. In fact, about 33 percent of the 2015 consumption of natural gas in the United States was by the industrial sector.
Source: American Chemistry Council
In fact, thanks to the United States’ abundant supplies of natural gas and natural gas liquids (NGLs) from our own domestic shale formations,
“[T]he U.S. has become the most attractive place in the world to make chemicals and plastics. As a result, a historic wave of expansion and investment is underway. As of this month, 262 U.S. chemical industry projects valued at $161 billion have been announced, including new facilities, expansions and factory re-starts. More than 43 percent of the investment is completed or under construction, while 53 percent is in the planning phase. More than 60 percent is foreign direct investment.”
Even the blanket you sit on requires energy – to grow and harvest the cotton that makes the blanket, while even more energy is used to transport that cotton to a factory. Still more energy is used to process the cotton and to bleach and dye and weave the cotton into cloth. More energy is used to package the blanket, get it to a store and so on.
And what would a picnic be without a Frisbee? While the first Frisbees were made out of pie tins, it didn’t take long for bakery owner and entrepreneur Fred Morrison to perfect the pie tin into a commercial product. Today’s Frisbees are made out injection-molded polyethylene, the largest volume polymer consumed in the world. But it all starts with ethylene, a colorless, flammable gas that is converted into a polymer.
So, in honor of the recent International Picnic Day (June 18th, FYI), grab a few friends, a cooler full of refreshing treats to share and go out in search of a perfect outdoor spot to eat, drink and be merry. Just remember, without a diverse number of energy resources, modern day life would be no picnic at all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.