Saturday, July 12, 2008

American Idiots

Foreign oil is the latest evil facing our nation. George W. Bush is using the current fuel crisis to open the door for more drilling domestically and John McCain is heeding that call making domestic oil part of his battle cry.

Of course nobody's talking about the fact the US Oil reserves are paltry compared to those in the Middle East. The much debated oil reserve under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been optimistically estimated to be capable of producing 3 billion barrels of oil over a period of 22 years. The United States currently consumes more than 20 million barrels of oil per day with more than 9 million barrels going to gasoline. In short, we can't pump domestic oil fast enough to meet a fraction of current demand and if we could there isn't enough oil to last more than a few years. Economists around the world agree that if the US managed to develop oil producing technology that allowed US reserves to have an impact on global prices, OPEC would simply reduce production to maintain pricing integrity.

What's funny is that people think the strategic manipulation of supplies to maintain prices is unfair in some way even though this practice has been around since the beginning of commerce. In the US farmers are paid subsidies to not plant crops in order to keep prices level. If that market manipulation backfires in the wake of floods or droughts the consumer ends up paying the price, quite literally, at the register.

The problem we have in this country is not an addiction to foreign oil. We're addicted to fossil fuels. The problem with oil and its cousin coal go beyond the environmental concerns. While drilling and mining take a tremendous toll and the problems with emissions are well documented, the real concern is the fact that dependency on these resources puts the consumer under the thumb of corporate powers that have proven themselves to be rather heartless. The nature of these industries limits competition so prices are easily set in boardrooms rather than in the open market. When alternatives such as wind and solar power are discussed proponents of coal and oil are quick to produce a litany of problems but the one they are most concerned with is how it will affect their bottom line. How dare we consider using a renewable resource that would reduce energy prices?

It's not just fuel consumption that causes problems. A considerable amount of petroleum is used in a variety of industrial applications with plastics being the most notable. Plastic consumption might be the easiest area realize meaningful reductions. Modified corn and potato starch can be used to replace most of the plastic containers we see and those products are not only biodegradable, they can be composted in your own back yard. Resusable grocery bags are becoming increasing popular and more and more people are carrying their own containers to purchase beverages such as coffee and soft drinks. Plastic packaging represents a significant area of petroleum consumption but you don't hear people talking about doing away with those 20 ounce bottles. Our presidential candidates aren't concerned about how much recyclable material is ending up in our landfills. Not caring about the environmental impact is one thing, but what about the oil? Reusing or recycling a container reduces the amount of oil used to create new containers.

You see, the problem is that Americans have nobody to blame but themselves for their dependency on oil. The rising prices we see at the pump aren't because of OPEC, India or China. The United States is the number one consumer of oil around the world. Global consumption is at 85 million barrels per day and the US consumes more than a quarter of that. Granted, we are a highly industrialized nation that represents a significant portion of the global economy but the fact remains that 5% of the world's population is using 25% of the world's oil. We can do better. And until we're willing to look ourselves in the mirror and accept that responsibility, sticking a drill in every square mile of this country is not going to help.

But Americans don't want to hear it. Parking the F-150 is not an option. People are better at finding reasons not to carpool or take public transportation than they are at overcoming the minor inconveniences associated with leaving the car at home. We don't want to recycle, or be troubled with the hassle of toting our own shopping bags around. So in November people will cast their vote for the candidate who does the best job of flattering them. Bomb the continental shelf for drilling...stick a coal mine in the middle of the Grand Canyon...just don't ask us to take responsibility.