Drilling Ourselves Deep in a Hole

At one point in his masterful People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn reflects upon the unspeakable carnage wrought by the Conquistadors in South and Central America, all in the pursuit of gold, and wonders at how those obscene riches sustained imperial greatness... for barely a hundred years. All that bloodletting, enslavement, massacres -- genocide in places -- for a temporary wealth that quickly vanished on the stage of history.

It reminds me of our current oil craze: in one century we have plundered billions of years of stored hydrocarbons, and what do we have to show for it? Fleeting prosperity -- one that is hardly shared by all -- a highly volatile Middle East, and awesome ecological devastation that will require centuries of recovery.

And now, as the age of oil finally signals its inevitable demise, our president and his allies in Washington announce that their grand response is ... to drill for more oil. Congress and the president are of course reacting to public hysteria from rising prices at the pump. But expanding domestic drilling is an inane proposal. Actually, it is reckless and tragic.

Until this week, Washington has largely chosen to ignore the real reason behind the dramatic rise in oil prices. Congress ripped Wall Street speculators for driving up the price of a barrel, but economists have long agreed that the major culprit is increasing demand in China, India and the developing world. Congress now appears to have realized that global demand is the problem; however, this is a problem that cannot be drilled away. Any increase in global oil supply is destined to be quickly outpaced by skyrocketing energy demands.

Domestic drilling can only diminish gas prices if that supply were guaranteed for domestic use alone. This appears to be the underlying assumption of the current congressional push for expanded domestic drilling. And it is laughable. Contracts for drilling in Alaska and off our coasts will likely go to US-based firms, like Exxon or Conoco, which are also transnational corporations, and thus, in no way compelled to restrict retail to the US market. If expanded domestic drilling succeeds in lowering our gas prices -- even marginally -- five years from now, while gas prices abroad remain robust, we all know well where Exxon will shop its Alaskan crude.

This call to expand domestic drilling is again the temptation to delay the inevitable: the transition to renewable energy and sustainable lifestyles. Oil is ecologically condemned, but also economically condemned, for it is a limited resource: its inevitable destiny is to become more expensive -- and then run out. Accordingly, those nations that best prepare themselves for a post-petroleum world will be best positioned economically for the future.

In Belgium recently, where gas flutters around nine dollars a gallon, I was impressed that people hardly complain. Belgians do complain about Americans, however, and our frenzied reaction to fuel prices that are still less than half what they pay. Belgians have long gotten used to high fuel prices. And they have long adjusted to them. Belgian towns, even the newer neighborhoods, are compact and walkable; they are crossed and interconnected by competent public transportation. Sidewalks and bike paths line the roads, which are populated by all manner of tiny cars such as we hardly see in the US. Europeans are already prepared for oil scarcity -- and demise even, as the famed Autobahn in Germany is now lined with solar panels.

There is little sense that the powers that run this country are similarly forward thinking. Five years later, it is now apparent that the war in Iraq was largely spearheaded by this administration to secure an enduring source of oil. I do not have space here to review the ample evidence supporting this. It is enough to cite the shamefully generous long term contracts for western oil companies in Iraq that are now coming to light.

In his latest book, former World Bank director Joseph Stiglitz claims that the war in Iraq will end up costing three trillion dollars. Imagine if that amount had been dedicated to researching and sustaining the transition to renewable energies. A mere trillion dollars would have gone a long way towards remodeling American suburbia for lifestyle and transportation changes such as I witnessed in Belgium. Instead, we have sacrificed unimaginable funds (from future generations, Stiglitz tells us), and tens of thousands of lives (at least) for a resource that is soon to be economically irrelevant!

In this light, this administration's Iraqi venture is shockingly shortsighted. And now, in proposing that we sully pristine Alaskan wilds and our fragile coastal shelves in the name of oil, the White House threatens to keep living its lie. China is undertaking a massive initiative to install solar powered water heaters on urban homes; Brazil provides 40% of its domestic fuel use from homegrown sugarcane ethanol. We, on the other hand, aim to squeeze more oil from a taxed planet, and further entrench ourselves in our sorry addiction. This nation's repeated gambles on oil will likely cost American prosperity -- and superiority -- in the 21st century.

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