Better World Club

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Our Collective Addiction to Oil

By Jim Wilcox
Executive Director
BikeLane Coalition

Once again, sales of trucks and SUV's are out pacing car sales. Have we already forgotten $4 a gallon gas, plunging SUV values, and presidential warnings of oil addiction? Were last summer's gas prices a result of greedy foreign producers selling oil for whatever we would pay, or unscrupulous speculators after profit? No matter. Big vehicles are back. But are we driving down the road to renewed prosperity or further dependence?

In their forthcoming book, The End of the Road, authors Joseph McKinney, President of Oregon Roads Vehicle Leasing Sales, and co-author Amy Isler Gibson write that these price fluctuations reflect the challenge of adjusting to a long term trend of decreasing oil supply, global warming, and increased pollution from the unbridled rise of gas guzzlers. They also question the Obama administration, which seeks to fund vast transportation infrastructure projects encouraging continued dependence on the car and, as a result, strategic dependence on foreign oil.

The authors argue that instead we must redesign our roads for cleaner, more efficient, humane passage, with complete streets designed as walking, biking, and public transportation boulevards. Central to their argument is the need to dethrone the car and replace it with neighborhood electric vehicles in order to reclaim our urban core, currently dominated by the infernal combustion engine.

But why now when prices are so low? Because they aren't. In 1998 an International Center for Technology assessment pegged the true cost of gas between $5 and $15 a gallon. Such external costs as government subsidies for oil companies, pollution related health care, infrastructure needs not funded by gas taxes, military expenditures to maintain oil supplies, and environmental protection and clean up were costs borne by society but not factored into the price at the pump. Add inflation over ten years plus two new wars and the current cost of a gallon of gas is even greater.

Because the price of oil does not include external costs, it is priced as a subsidized commodity, lower than what the free market would determine, perpetuating our addiction. As T. Boone Pickens notes, this has led to the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the world. In 2007, Lane County residents paid out $637 million to countries like the United Arab Emirates, which is currently building the tallest structure in the world. While we baked in gas lines last summer, Dubai residents skied an indoor winter playground. Our energy bill paid their E Ticket.

President Obama agrees that we are oil addicts, claiming that "...admitting to oil addiction without following a real plan for energy independence is like admitting alcoholism and then skipping out on the twelve-step program." And just like an addict, we don't worry about the next fix as long as we have the drug.

That demand will slacken with higher gas prices was proved last summer when people drove less, making beneficial changes like walking, riding bikes, carpooling, and trip chaining. But even as the need for public transportation grew, service was ironically cut due to higher fuel costs.

I am an educator by training, but I don't have faith that education can thwart addictions. Like an addict, we'll do what we can to get our fix, even if it means turning food into bioethanol, raising the cost for ourselves and threatening sources of sustenance for those with marginal incomes.

Blame evolution for our predicament. Psychologists tell us that our brains are hard wired to respond to threats that are nearby in space and time. We don't immediately see our mileage cut in half or twice the pollution for short distance trips with a cold engine. We don't see the person with pollution-caused lung cancer. It's just one more trip, like one more cigarette or one more drink. The last one didn't kill us, why should this one?

In 1980, when oil imports accounted for about 30% of our demand, presidential candidate John Anderson called for a 50 cent a gallon gas tax. Had we adopted that tax then, the resulting decrease in consumption could have cut pollution related health care expenses and reduced taxes that support military spending (now half the world's total and most of which is dedicated to protecting Middle East oil supplies). Additionally, we would have raised about $100 billion per year to fund increased mass transit, additional bike routes, alternative energy, and improved roads and bridges. But our addiction spoke, we rejected Anderson's proposal as well as his candidacy, and we now import over 60% of our oil.

So, we are left with the ever present problem of how to raise the price of the drug to discourage the addict's use. This will take an intervention from the top of our government to reverse an addiction to oil that threatens our nation's health, wealth, and security. And it will take our collective will and some inconvenience as we make personal changes necessary to achieve energy independence. But without this leadership and our acceptance, the addict will not change his ways.

BikeLane Coalition is a 501(c)(3) that works with companies, government agencies and nonprofits to increase cycling for short distance inner city travel. Jim Wilcox is the Executive Director, and has been an for cyclists for over 30 years. He is newly appointed to the Lane County Roads Advisory Committee.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

What The Frack?!?!?

The Oil and Gas Industries are Pumping Millions of Gallons of Dangerous Chemicals Into the Ground, and Nobody's Regulating Them

Gosh, the EPA Must Be Too Busy Regulating Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Cars... No, Wait, They're Not Doing That Either

Well, Maybe They're All Too Busy Lining Up Jobs in the Oil, Chemical, and Mining Industries Before January 2009



Fracturing ("fracking") fluids are toxic chemical cocktails that companies drilling for oil or natural gas use to break up rock below ground. The ingredients that make up these fracking fluids are a closely held and unregulated secret, and can include almost any set of chemicals.

The EPA okayed the use of these fluids in 2004, deeming them safe for groundwater and the environment. In 2005, Congress exempted fracking fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act, due to the fact that they are usually pumped into the ground far below water tables.

Pumping millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the ground? Great idea! What could possibly go wrong? Well, plenty. Recently, an employee at an energy-services company in Colorado got caught in a fracking fluid spill (that was never officially reported). The worker experienced headaches and nausea and was taken to the emergency room. The chemical stench given off by the sick man was so great that the ER was locked down and hospital staff were ordered to wear protective masks and gowns. The nurse who attended the sick man got sick herself several days later and was admitted into the intensive care unit with a swollen liver, erratic blood counts, and lungs filling with fluid.

This incident was caused by a mere 130-gallon spill. Millions of gallons of fracking fluid are being pumped into the ground. With all of the new drilling permits being issued by our fossil fuel-loving president (in the Rocky Mountain region alone, 33,000 new wells have been approved since 2001), it's only a matter of time before a major spill occurs.

Also, what about the long-term effects of pumping unregulated toxic chemicals into the ground? Not to be a baby about this, but our food and drinking water come from the ground, too. You think maybe we should be paying more attention to what we're pumping down there?

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Energy Crisis Raises Questions: Do Conservatives Believe In America?

When Everyone Wants to Be Prudent, Which Policy Is?

Should We "Drain America First"?

One of the many slanders exchanged by liberals and conservatives is that conservatives believe in America and liberals don't.

Well, liberals believe that our technological ability is so great that we could soon have alternative energy technology available. If so, why waste money and generate environmental damage on an outdated technology like fossil fuels?

Conservatives have so little faith in American know-how that they don't think we can develop alternative technologies in the near term.

OK, we don't really mean this. This is the overstated way of taking a sliver of truth and using it to slice up the other side.

In fact, on various issues, each side gets accused unfairly. Often, the opposing side will parry the attack by saying that they are just being...prudent.

This enables conservatives to use the same rationale to advocate drilling that liberals use on global warming: the future is unknowable. Conservatives believe the downside is greater if we put all of our eggs in the new technology basket just as liberals believe the downside is greater if we ignore oil and coal's devastating potential for global warming.

However, there is another argument that falls under "prudence" that should enter the oil vs. new technology debate: Should we drain America first?

Is this an argument against ever drilling anywhere again? No. But remember, each barrel of American oil that we use today is one that we won't have available tomorrow. Few believe that the U.S. has close to the deepest untapped reserves. Some research concludes that the U.S. has as little as 3% of world oil reserves. So, if we do tap them and no new technology comes along, then one day, maybe in twenty years, maybe in thirty or forty, but one day, we are going to find ourselves in much deeper trouble than we are today.

So, let's put as much effort as we can into developing alternative energy sources. And let's take careful steps to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But if our well-being depends upon using up American oil reserves, just keep in mind that as our oil runs out, we will be dependent once again. Just more dependent than ever.

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Pelosi Wants to "Save The Earth"

Hmm...How About Wanting to "Save Our Economy and Defend Our Country and the Environment"?

We're all for Nancy Pelosi being attracted to the title of "Environmentalist-in-Chief" as reflected by her comment that she wants to "save the earth". But she must do a much better job of educating the American people that her desire to get off fossil fuels reflects concerns about the economy and national security as well as the environment.

The Speaker could start by teaching the American people that environmental damage is an example of marketplace failure. The market does not require business to internalize the cost to the environment. Just the opposite, it encourages them to externalize these costs and impose them on others--whether it is global warming (which is just another form of pollution), oil spills, impact on health... whatever.

Product prices should reflect all of their costs. Otherwise, businesses are receiving a form of subsidy, hardly the only hidden oil subsidy given the amount of military spending to protect its delivery.

But these subsidies hide the real cost of fossil fuels--as well as impede the development of new technologies. Gasoline, like other products, should be priced so that the environmental and other costs are internalized. Of course, gasoline prices would be higher than people desire--and other policies should then be adjusted to help people cope. But Americans need to be wedded to economic rationality, which includes full internalization of costs.

This argument also should be built on the fact that there is no "marketplace", at least as we think of it, in oil to begin with, as the supply is controlled by a cartel.

The Dems have also been pointing to the disconnect between the oil companies holding "unproductive" leases yet wanting more. But the case has not been well made. How can there be predictions of over 100 billion barrels of untapped oil reserves on US property, when so many leases are unproductive? This seems to mean either that the oil companies are holding back on exploiting productive leases or that the reserves aren't nearly as great as the oil industry claims. Which is it? This loop needs to be closed.

Finally, if U.S. oil is so valuable and if we hold only a fraction of the world's reserves, should we be running to use all of it? Should we be draining America first?

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