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June 16, 2008
Choking on the
Consequences of Petroleum Denial
“Everybody sooner or
later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
had our first warning back in 1973. Our second notice arrived in 1979.
Gasoline grew scarce and the price soared. Inflation roared while the
U.S. economy fizzled.
Both times, however, gas became readily available again after a few
months and we learned to live with new price levels. We ultimately
ignored the relatively mild warnings and went on about business as
usual. We even turned our backs on the fuel-efficient vehicles that were
popular for a time in favor of gas hogs that made us ever more dependent
on foreign fuel sources.
Now we are feasting (choking, more accurately) on the consequences of
our national refusal, some three-plus decades ago, to start developing
workable alternatives to petroleum. The price of oil recently zoomed
past $135.00 per barrel with no long-term end to the run-up in sight.
The U.S. Energy Department told Congress last week that gasoline prices
will rise to $4.15 per gallon by August and not decline much after
One tank of gas now costs so much that many families cut out necessities
to be able to run their cars or trucks. Eat or freeze? That may well be
the no-win question for many middle-class Americans this winter, let
alone the poor who always engage in the cold-season dance of death.
Cheap petroleum underlies the world as we Americans know it. We designed
our transport system, and with it our cities, suburbs and exurbs, based
on gas widely available and cheap enough for most individuals to own one
or more cars or trucks. Thus the soaring cost of fuel threatens our
entire way of life. What do we do now?
this presidential election year, we stand at that proverbial fork in the
road of how we respond to this existential crisis. We face tough
questions and decisions as a nation and as individuals, and we had best
start thinking about them before we mark our ballots this November.
One choice: Do we open up areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
for drilling? Even if we start today, we won’t reap the benefits for at
least a decade. And if we simply keep looking for oil and oil reserves,
will we stop searching for oil alternatives? That is short-sighted,
because it simply puts off the inevitable, just as we did the last times
around. Delay hasn’t served us very well in the long run.
Another choice: Do we maintain our current foreign policy of invading
nations with huge oil reserves with the covert aim of coercing them into
signing production agreements highly favorable to U.S. multinational oil
companies? That is the most succinct and accurate summary of the
situation in Iraq and the true motivation for taking out its former
despot, Saddam Hussein. The current administration keeps making noises
about invading Iran – another oil-rich nation – as does the Republican
Could the invasion of Iraq, in fact, be one of the factors driving the
run-up in the cost of oil? Will we continue to base our foreign policy
on the market needs of major corporations? We the people are paying for
this misbegotten adventure coming and going. Thousands of dead and
wounded troops, billions in tax dollars wasted and/or stolen by various
U.S. and Iraqi war contractors, and the price of oil is far higher than
justified even by market fundamentals of supply and demand.
Are we so desperate for oil that we are willing to continue this folly?
In the short term, that answer may be a resounding yes. In the long run,
however, we have the ability to answer differently. We can decide, as a
nation, to be much smarter about our energy choices. Call it the
holistic approach. Get serious about energy and water conservation with
a blend of private initiatives and government mandates. Get serious
about alternative sources of fuel that don’t put a strain on
agriculture, such as landfills. Get serious about designing, building
and retrofitting housing to use far less fuel and water and still be
comfortable and easy on the eyes.
just have to decide that energy intelligence is our national priority
and get serious about becoming truly energy-savvy.
course, it’s far more likely we will simply start pointing fingers of
blame and do nothing at all except wallow in our present misery. If so,
we should at least stand in front of the mirror so we are aiming our
digits at the right targets.
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