Protesters hold a black "Keep It In The Ground" banner with white letters.

Protesters hold a "Keep It In The Ground" banner during a 2021 demonstration outside Lloyd's of London.

(Photo: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

For Earth Day, Let's End our Addiction to Oil

While government and industry continue to extol the short-term benefits of oil, they remain unwilling to tell the truth about its long-term costs.

A great way to honor Earth Day 2023 (April 22) would be to accelerate our efforts to end our destructive addiction to oil.

The first step toward recovery from any addiction is to tell the truth—admit the addiction, acknowledge its consequences. Yet this is something we still seem unwilling to do with our addiction to oil. It is always easier for addicts to just stay high instead of confronting their addiction and committing to recovery.

The recently approved Willow oil project in Arctic Alaska is just the most recent example of America's persistent oil addiction, just another needle in the arm of an old oil junkie.

While government and industry continue to extol the short-term benefits of oil, they remain unwilling to tell the truth about its long-term costs.

Sooner or later, we will get to the far side of our troubled oil addiction, as we will run out of the stuff. But the sooner we get there, the better chance we have at a sustainable future

Some costs are obvious. Oil spills, such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez in Alaska and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, are easily recognizable disasters that attract widespread public condemnation. Thirty-four years after the Alaska spill and 13 years after Deepwater Horizon, coastal ecosystems have still not fully recovered and toxic oil remains in shoreline sediments. Many oil-producing areas of the world, such as the Niger Delta, the Caspian Sea, and Siberia, have suffered decades of oil spills.

But the true cost of oil goes far beyond the obvious damage from spills. More gradual, less visible costs of oil include ecological habitat degradation from exploration, production, and pipelines; health costs from breathing air polluted with fossil fuel emissions; urban sprawl and traffic congestion around all major cities of the world; and seemingly endless wars fought to secure oil supplies, like Iraq and Sudan, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

Climate change from carbon emissions is incurring enormous present and future costs--storm damage, drought, wildfires, lost agricultural productivity, infrastructure damage, climate refugees, disease, forest decline, marine ecosystem collapse, species extinctions, and lost ecosystem services. Global climate change costs already exceed $1 trillion a year, and will continue to rise. Insurance companies predict that by mid-century, climate change could reduce the global economy by $23 trillion annually.

And wherever it is produced, there is a "socio-political toxicity" of oil, a significant distortion of economic, social, and political systems. Rather than the prosperity promised, oil discoveries around the world often become more curse than blessing, causing social dysfunction, assimilation of indigenous cultures, runaway inflation, a decline in traditional exports, excess consumption, abuse of political power, overextended government spending, and unsustainable growth. Former Venezuelan oil minister Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, a founder of OPEC and once a true believer in the promise of oil, thought differently after he saw the corruption, greed, waste, and debt it caused, then calling oil "the devil's excrement."

Post-pandemic world oil use continues to rise, last year hitting a historic high of 100 million barrels a day, and still climbing. To date, the world has pumped and burned over one trillion barrels of oil, and there may be another trillion barrels of recoverable "conventional" oil left, with several trillion barrels in unconventional reserves such as tar sands; oil shales, like the huge Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming; and heavy oil deposits.

If we want a sustainable future, we'll have to leave most of this oil buried right where it is, as the global climate cannot handle that much additional carbon. But the carbon pushers see hundreds of billions of dollars just waiting to be extracted, and are anxious to get to it. As with any addiction, when the easy stuff is gone and supplies tighten, addicts become desperate and willing to take more risk to secure the next fix, such as drilling in the Arctic and deep ocean basin.

While president George W. Bush stunned the world in his 2006 State of Union speech, stating that: "we have a serious problem, America is addicted to oil," his administration did nothing to help recover from the addiction. And despite candidate Obama's promise to end "the tyranny of oil," and that, if elected, "the rise of the oceans will begin to slow," as president, Obama was more oil enthusiast, boasting that: "We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some." As a result of such federal deference to oil advocates, the U.S. is now the top oil producer in the world. The tyranny of oil continues, and seas continue to rise.

Oil-producing governments the world over—including the U.S.—are 'captured' and controlled by oil interests that dictate policies to limit regulation, lower taxation, and to favor production and demand for oil over development of low-carbon alternatives. The 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling now allows oil companies to pour unlimited funds into oil-friendly candidates and issues, without public disclosure. Media is awash in ads keeping us hooked on the stuff.

The International Monetary Fund reports that governments encourage our fossil fuel addiction with annual subsidies of some $5.9 trillion. Such subsidies artificially depress prices and encourage "demand;" detract from government spending on health care, education, and social services; and keep alternative energy "uncompetitive." A 1998 study estimated that for every gallon of gasoline we bought at the pump, we were actually paying as much as $14 a gallon in additional "hidden" costs. Yet, we continue to ignore these hidden costs, paying for some indirectly through income taxes, and deferring most to future generations. We are tricking ourselves into using "cheap and easy" oil as fast as we can pump it out of the ground.

Clearly, the drug pushers are running the show.

And perhaps the most pernicious cost of oil is that it has fueled an unprecedented degradation of the global biosphere. With access to artificially "cheap and easy" oil over the past century, human population quadrupled and resource consumption increased many times more, now significantly exceeding the Home Planet's carrying capacity. Without access to fossil carbon, humanity would almost certainly have evolved on a more sustainable trajectory. By not accounting for its true cost, oil has allowed us to dig ourselves deeper into an unsustainable hole. The environmental debt we are accruing is far larger and more consequential than our national financial debt.

Governments should have begun acting on this decades ago.

I recall after the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, when Vice President Dan Quayle visited Prince William Sound, Alaska, to see the extensive spill damage first hand, and then met with a few of us local citizens in a private meeting at the tiny airport in Cordova Alaska.

As the clear, transcendent lesson of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was that we needed to reduce our use of oil, in that 1989 meeting I asked the VP—"Shouldn't the Exxon Valdez oil spill motivate us to adopt a progressive national energy policy that reduces our use of oil?" The VP's answer: "Well, I like fusion, you know, there is fission and there is fusion....and I like fusion."

Well, so did we, but there were of course many other things that the U.S. government could and should have done then to begin the transition to a low carbon energy economy–funding to increase energy efficiency and alternative energy, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, instituting a carbon tax, and so on.

But absolutely nothing changed. Nothing. We simply continued to dig our fossil fuel hole deeper. And that is our historic, catastrophic failure. Our collective shame.

What a different world we would have now if, back in 1989 when atmospheric CO 2 was at 350 ppm and global emissions were 22 billion tons/year, the oil industry and its Republican supplicants had just gotten the hell out of the way of the science and progressive low-carbon energy policy proposals. Today, CO2 is over 420 ppm, emissions are 40 billion tons/year, both continuing to rise.

If we had acted then, we would now be well along on our path to a low-carbon energy economy, perhaps over the hump, reducing atmospheric CO 2 levels and global temperature. Imagine that—Arctic sea ice and permafrost reforming; Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets stabilizing; ocean ecosystems recovering; wildfires, floods, drought, heat waves, and weather disasters declining; coastal erosion subsiding; agriculture improving; oil wars a thing of the past; and overall global prosperity increasing.

Instead, these selfish oil zealots saw trillions of dollars of oil just lying in the ground and seabed waiting to be exploited. They wanted it, they got it, and they got piles of money in their pockets—all at the expense of the planet and humanity's future. This is one of the most extraordinary failures in human history.

As the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently concluded, while time is running out, there is still time to act on this. Every gram of hydrocarbons we keep in the ground now will help stabilize our future.

So for this Earth Day, let's get serious about kicking the fossil fuel habit with better regulation and full costing of carbon. The full "social cost of carbon" has been estimated by the federal government at $50 - $100 per ton of CO 2, and with global emissions now at 40 billion tons per year, this amounts to $2 trillion - $4 trillion annually. This is the amount of money needed to solve this problem. When we account for these very real costs, sustainable alternatives become competitive, and we begin to make rational choices.

Governments must accelerate the clean energy transition by shifting fossil fuel subsidies to sustainable low-carbon alternatives, reducing emissions through regulation, and instituting a carbon tax to help capture the long-term cost of carbon emissions. While the Group of 20 (G20) industrialized nations enacted a 15% global minimum corporate tax in 2021, the G20 has so far failed to enact a global minimum carbon tax. Until this is done, we will continue to trick ourselves into using fossil fuels at artificially reduced costs, projecting the real and dire costs on to future generations. Please engage your elected officials on this.

Sooner or later, we will get to the far side of our troubled oil addiction, as we will run out of the stuff. But the sooner we get there, the better chance we have at a sustainable future.

Then, like most recovering addicts, we will wonder why we didn't get clean sooner.

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