The Real Problem: Our Oil Addiction Has to End

While so many people expend tons of energy on trying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, and others still worry about BP paying its fair share of the costs of cleaning up their oil spill, another spill is going on in Galveston Bay, and threatens that areas formerly thriving fishing industry. It’s a smaller-but-still-dangerous replay of the BP oil spill of four years ago. And it’s a damn shame.  

But it happens largely because we deal with the symptoms of the problem, and not the problem itself. Making sure BP pays for cleanup doesn’t solve the root problem. Killing the last spur of Keystone XL not only doesn’t solve the root problem, but it may have a hand in exacerbating it, albeit on a short-term basis.

So, what is the root problem?

Well, I was listening to a radio program the other day, and the hosts were talking about cars, and how some cars just don’t “sound manly enough.” Apparently, for many, the only vehicles that can support “manhood” are “muscle cars.” They apparently preferred a car that could go 120 and was capable of going from zero-to-60 in a matter of seconds. then, they went on a rant, claiming that hybrid and electric cars just weren’t “manly” enough. 

THAT is the root problem. I listen to people like that, and I’m reminded of what cowboys probably said when they rode in a “horseless carriage” the first time.

The oil era is over. It was actually over in the late 1960s, but it’s our relentless silliness about internal combustion engine vehicles  that keeps it alive. While it’s easy to blame Obama, Bush, Cheney, BP and ExxonMobil for the problem, blaming them is like blaming a drug problem on coca farmers in Colombia. If the users weren’t using, the coca farmers wouldn’t grow it. And if we demanded that the major car makers start making more electric or hybrid vehicles, we wouldn’t be talking about whether the Keystone XL pipeline should have been built. 

One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life happened in Washington, DC on a spring Saturday a while back maybe 2006 or 2007. I worked about two blocks from the OEOB and the White House, and a protest against global warming was being staged at Lafayette Park, which is directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. But the parking garage of the building where my office sat was fuller than an average Saturday, and about 90% of the vehicles in the garage were SUVs and minivans. When I decided to go for a walk and investigate, the same was true of the vehicles parked on the street. Essentially, the protesters were driving SUVs and minivans to a protest of global warming.

Let’s be real. It’s OUR gullibility, OUR greed, and OUR selfishness that has led us to this situation. We need to solve it, and we will not solve it by protesting Keystone XL (which shouldn’t have been built in the first place), or making sure BP pays for cleanup, or even by banning fracking. There is only one way to solve all the problems associated with oil, and that is to advocate for everything that lessens the use of oil. But it’s also going to take all of us doing our part to make this problem less of a problem. That means advocating for cleaner, safer and more comprehensive public transit systems, both within cities and between them. It also means not driving anywhere we don’t absolutely have to. It means putting solar panels on your roof. It means making sure as many businesses as possible do the same. It means working with your local government to put up wind turbines where possible. And as always, the first step is to get rid of the current Republican Party, because they are literally incapable of looking at the big picture, and this is a big picture problem.

Jimmy Carter was the last president to take the oil problem seriously. He saw the dangerous position this country was in after the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, when it was clear that oil was no longer a free market enterprise, and he set us up to wean ourselves off of oil. Carter set up an energy conservation protocol that pushed research and development of alternative energy, set higher CAFÉ standards, put tons of money into public transportation projects, and promoted energy savings. The goal was to cut energy use by 5% per year, and it worked, until Reagan was elected, and gutted those programs.

And frankly, we let him.

Why not? Oil prices sank to almost nothing, and we were excited to pay less than a dollar per gallon. We were all happy as clams. With interest rates back below 10%, we couldn’t wait to stuff our garages with gas guzzlers, like huge pickup trucks, SUVs, vans and mini-vans. It was almost as if we’d never had a gas crisis in the 1970s. Every woman with children needed to have a vehicle that doubled as a tank and every guy who needed to “Prove his manhood” had to have a noisy road hog.

I’d love to blame all of this on the GOP, but the fact is, when our economy boomed under Bill Clinton, we had an amazing opportunity to invest in alternative fuels and wean ourselves from our oil addiction, and we blew it. We bought the idea that oil and gas would always be cheap, and we used more of it every year Even as the Chinese and Indian economies, with their more than 2 billion people, started to grow, we still bought the US government’s BS, that oil would always be cheap and plentiful. A booming economy is the greatest time to start a transition away from oil, and yet, no one thought to do so.

It’s time we dealt with reality. Oil is not a free market, and it hasn’t been for decades. While there are still a few oil companies out there, but it’s not a competitive market at all. Oil is controlled by a series of cartels, who control supply and price. Put it this way; when prices go up, why aren’t competitive oil companies trying to find cheaper suppliers, so they can undersell them? Also, while we’re suddenly producing a lot more oil domestically, there is no such thing as “energy independence” when it comes to oil. Republicans have co-opted that term and made it sound feasible that we could produce a lot more oil for our own consumption and lower the price, but the act is, we use 20% of all oil produced in the world, but we only have 2% of the world’s reserves. Do the math. Even if we keep using the same amount we use now going forward, with no increase, we’ll run out in less than 20 years. If we really want to become “energy independent,” we have to produce our own non-fossil fuels. We have to use our own sun energy, our own wind energy, our own geothermal energy and our own tidal energy.

We also have to switch to electric vehicles for as many trips as possible, and stop buying more vehicle than we need. Do we really need a pickup, if we haul things 2-3 times per year? Why can’t we rent one at those times we need them? Likewise, if you have two kids, do you really need seating for eight? In a country where the top speed limit on most roads is around 60 miles per hour, why does anyone need an 8 cylinder gas guzzler muscle car? And even if you’d like one, isn’t it just possible to drive something like that on weekends, and keep a smaller car or an electric car to go back and forth to work every day? Also, read your vehicle’s manual. It’s not necessary to change your oil every 3 months or 3,000 miles. I have done an informal survey for years, and I have yet to find an owner’s manual that specifies a specific time period that is less than 7,500 miles. In fact, if you use synthetic oil, you can double that.

We have the technology NOW to demand that all vehicles be hybrids, and we have the technology NOW to sell reasonably priced electric cars with reasonable commuter ranges. We have the technology NOW to retrofit heavy trucks for biodiesel fuel during a transition to hybrid or electric truck engines. We have the technology NOW to replace most fossil-fuel power plants with solar and wind power, and to equip or replace our off-shore drilling rigs with wind turbines.

And don’t listen to the Republicans, who will tell you we’re broke. We have plenty of money to do these things. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year building weapons systems we’ll never use against an enemy that no longer exists.  We spend more on “defense” than every other major nation in the world combined. If we took ten percent of that money, and put it toward alternative fuels development, and research and development of battery technology, we could whip this thing. Besides, spending that money on getting us off oil will result in massive job creation, which would be a major economic stimulus.

All of this is our fault, at the root of it. We have to change the way we think about energy usage. It’s a great idea to change light bulbs and taking recycling seriously. It’s time for all of us to start thinking about what we use, and compare that to what we NEED, and removing the difference.

Contact your local, state and federal politicians, and demand that they put more of YOUR money into mass transit expansion. Demand that they build in regulations that encourage people to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and incentivize the building and purchase of hybrid and all-electric vehicles. At the same time, make sure they know we want them to put tons of money into the power grid and start building out our electrical infrastructure with wind and solar power. Germany, France and China, among others, are way ahead of us in developing solar and wind power, despite the fact that our first experiments with them pre-date theirs by more than 20 years.

It’s time we just got off our asses and did it. I’m sick to death of the Republican cynicism, whereby the United States, which used to be the most “can do” country in the world, can’t do this. We not only can do this; we have to. We just have to want it. 

But before we can, we have to remove the obstacles, especially the biggest one: the Republican Party.

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  1. Excellent rant! One of my own stories about “activists” is when there was a group of twelve who showed up for a kayak trip on one of our lakes, heading out to a wilderness site. 10 vehicles, the smallest of which was a Jeep.

    What I’ve pointed out to people is that we’re not running out of oil, we’re running out of cheap oil. The tar sands are only viable as a source because the price per barrel of crude exceeds the cost of producing it, but it won’t reduce the price per barrel – it can’t. It’s not until we get to a stage of “not needed” that the case for not developing it becomes a “no brainer.”

  2. Excellent rant Milt! People can bitch and moan all they want but it’s time to admit that we all bear some responsibility for the way things are, and we also have the power to change things. But first we have to acknowledge our role in it and give up just a teensy bit of the easy life we’ve gotten used to and do something for the planet. Which means we’re probably screwed, since even the looniest lefties draw the line at accepting responsibility.

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