June 23, 2008

Fossil Fuel and Fossilized Thinking

Every time the price of gasoline goes up there's renewed talk about drilling for oil in parts of the United States that had previously been off-limits for it. Whether it's in Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico, the idea is a seemingly simple one. We'll drill some new wells, pull the petroleum out of the ground, and before you know it we'll be paying 99¢ per gallon at the pump. Happy days are here again.

The latest incarnation of this notion comes from John McCain and potential vice presidential nominee Governor Charlie Crist of Florida. Crist had previously opposed drilling in the Gulf of Mexico but now that he stands a chance of advancing politically as a running mate to McCain he's changed his tune. Both Democrats and Republicans in Florida's legislature oppose the idea, though, and so it's unlikely to happen.

For some reason people feel that if you go out, drill these holes, that the price of gas is going to go down... There are oil spills and there are a hell of a lot of them... You get a spill and you're shutting that beach down for 10 or 15 years.

— Dennis Jones (R-Pinellas County)

If I had to vote on it right now, I would not vote for drilling offshore.

— Ron Reagan (R-Bradenton)

A very good question to ask at this juncture would be, "Why are there still politicians running for national office who are thinking about oil as a solution?" This is fossilized thinking. The solution to the problem can't include depending on continuing the same problem into the future. What we need is a New Deal for Energy.

If drilling off of Florida and the like were permitted today, it would be at least five years before production began and then the impact of that production would be to drop the price of gasoline about 3¢ to 5¢ per gallon. Gasoline is already $4.10 per gallon on average across the country. By the time production started, we could reasonable expect that the price would average, conservatively, $5.50 per gallon. At best, we're talking about savings of perhaps 10%, and that's being rather optimistic. Even if the risk of doing harm to already stressed ecosystems were as ideally small as some believe, in terms of risk vs. benefit that's hardly worthwhile. Moreover, if the US increased production, that still leaves us open to the threat of other countries cutting production to keep the price of oil high. A few new oil wells are not going to change the bigger picture in terms of where world reserves actually lie, and even if we conserve energy not only will our demand likely continue to increase — albeit at a slower rate — but demand in India and China will also grow. This doesn't look much like a solution to me.

We really need to start thinking about some fundamental changes, and a good place to start would be to make automobiles less necessary. We need to have a massive project in public mass transit. I don't mean only within the limits of large metropolitan areas, I mean that the US needs to build a mass transit system that can get people anywhere in the country that they want and need to travel. Cars should be relegated to a last resort status. It should be more expensive to travel by car than by mass transit, even if one were going all the way from New York to Los Angeles.

This hypothetical national transit system needs to be designed for flexible energy sources, too. It should be capable of being powered by multiple means — solar, wind, gassified coal and biomass. In fact, it shouldn't matter what the fuel is. It should be able to run on anything, at least in the great majority of applications. If we're low on one energy source, or if we find a new one, it should be a matter of simply plugging that new source into the grid.

I don't think this is a solution that could feasibly be left to the alleged free market, either. It's been more than 30 years since the United States experienced its first massive fuel shortages and we still travel primarily by automobile. If the free market were ever going to fix this situation, we'd have real solutions by now. Corporations see profits by minimizing expenditures and maximizing returns; they'll take the most immediately cost-effective, bottom-line-boosting route every time. That's not what's needed here.

What we need, I think, is a solution that looks a lot like the public works projects of the Great Depression Era, or like the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950's. Both of these revolutionized America's infrastructure, and we need another such revolution right now. This is too big a project for a patchwork of corporate interests to tackle. A centralized solution is needed. Personally, I don't care if such a solution looks like something that one might see produced by Socialism. Who cares? The only entity that can potentially pull together and coordinate the enormous resources necessary is the federal government. They'll screw some things up, no doubt, but right now the closest thing we've got is AmTrack, really. That might be part of the planning, but it's certainly not the solution itself. We need much, much more to happen and the time for waiting for it passed us by in the 1970's. We don't even have a viable alternative energy system after all this time. A top-down approach is called for.

And while we're talking about alternative energy sources, why not horses? Yes, it sounds antiquated, but why not put some horses and buggies on the roads for people traveling relatively short distances in cities and towns? Oats are a lot cheaper than oil. We can even recycle horse manure into fuel for the rest of the national transit grid if we're smart about it.

I'm not an urban planner or engineer, but I don't think one has to be one to realize that big changes are warranted here. We should be looking at the end of the automobile era at this point. We should be looking at solutions, not at putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. America has done it in the past and we can do it again if the national will is there and we have people in national office capable of thinking of long term, big picture changes that won't leave us right back where we started by the time one or two more presidential administrations have come and gone. Fossilized thinking that relies on fossil fuels isn't going to cut it anymore. Poking a few more holes in the ground and hoping that rotten Carboniferous Period plant juice will come gushing to the surface is something that might mollify those whose own lifetimes probably won't extend a decade or two but it isn't going to change anything in the ways they need to change.

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