At the end of this week, I'm scheduled to fly to the Persian Gulf. Most likely, I'll get to Abu Dhabi for the World Energy Future Summit. But the current saber rattling around the possibility that IF Europe proceeds with oil sanctions against Iran, and that IF Iran retaliates by shutting the Strait of Hormuz, that we might then find ourselves with a massive increase in the price of oil and war to boot makes the trip slightly less predictable than just a few weeks ago.
It's pathetic that we find ourselves here, almost fifty years after the first oil embargo and crisis in 1973, still utterly dependent on a single hydrocarbon molecule from a tiny, unstable, and largely hostile corner of the world, to conduct the very basics of our civilization. My working career had just begun with the first crisis, and its great gasoline lines, rationing, 50-mph speed limits, and gnashing of teeth. President Nixon promised we would "end our addiction." So have Presidents Ford, Carter, Bush, Clinton, and the second Bush. (Reagan was elected by an oil crisis, but didn't face one -- in fact much of his political success was due to the fact that oil prices, in real terms, fell steadily during his term. President Obama has been more modest in his rhetoric, if more robust in his actions.)
Now 40 years later, nothing much has happened. The world is still dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and it is dependent in spite of the fact that we have readily available alternatives, and a host of reasons (other than energy security) to wish ourselves rid of the noxious substance and the industry that provides it to us.
Just look at this week's "Ten Reasons to Stop Relying on Oil."
10) We wouldn't be seriously considering turning much of Alberta into a moonscape to extract its tar sands oil because the Persian Gulf oil producers have carefully notched the price up to just the level where someone could make a profit doing so.
9 ) We wouldn't have to put up with the spectacle of the American Petroleum Institute trying to bully President Obama into approving this pipeline -- whose actual impact would be to raise America's oil prices AND oil imports bill -- with the threat of "huge political consequences" if he doesn't simply ignore the facts and rush an approval forward.
8) The House Republicans would not have held up approval of basic extensions of Social Security Tax moratoria and unemployment benefits unless the president went along with their crazy plan to -- um, get the pipeline approved by forcing him to reject it? There is already enough insanity in Congress without adding this.
7) We would long ago have established the principle that when enormous oil companies like BP and Chevron despoil communities, they must clean up the mess they made -- rather than getting into a blame game in which Chevron says that the toxic disaster it left behind in Ecuador is the fault of the Ecuadorian oil company. That these shenanigans are outrageous was confirmed again yesterday when an Ecuadorean appeals court told Chevron that, yes, it really does have to pay the $9.5 billion in damages awarded against it there. But Chevron will appeal.
6) We wouldn't be wondering when BP will provide fair compensation to the victims of its Macondo gusher-in-the-Gulf. BP says that the oil catastrophe at the Macondo platform is the fault of its drilling partner, Halliburton. Meanwhile, it keeps dribbling out payments to those whose lives and livelihoods it destroyed. This week the payments stopped again -- for the umpteenth time -- before resuming.
5) Everyone would know that if the 20th Century belonged to the internal combustion engine powered by oil, the 21st Century will belong to something better -- some combination of electrification and biofuels. As a result, the U.S. auto industry, still recovering from its near-death addiction to cheap gas, would be able to get ready for further competition with foreign manufacturers with a clear game plan and a much better prospect for success.
4) As a result, we would be moving forward aggressively to build the green transportation economy of the future. Congress would not have gone home having left the nation's long-term transportation infrastructure unfunded, and the House Republican leadership would not have held up the debt-ceiling bill in an effort to deprive the U.S. of its chance for leadership in advanced vehicle manufacturing.
3) Oil industry behemoths like the Koch brothers wouldn't be able to hijack our democracy by investing millions in rigging elections, with their latest ploy being the effort to ensure that any Republican nominee is completely subservient to the interests of Big Oil, and proves it by pretending, regardless of what he really believes, that there is inadequate scientific basis to worry about global warming.
2) We wouldn't be shipping hundreds of millions of dollars and millions of jobs to the Persian Gulf, while the New York Times plaintively editorialized "This country needs a comparably broad strategy that will create a pathway from the fossil fuels of today to the greener fuels of tomorrow. We are under no illusions that such an appeal by Mr. Obama would win support among Republicans on Capitol Hill. House Republicans voted 191 times last year to undermine existing environmental protections or reject Democratic efforts to strengthen them." Instead, we would have a real economic recovery with real wages and livelihoods for the American people.
1) Oh, and did I mention that we wouldn't be looking at the prospect of another war over the Strait of Hormuz?
The way you know you have an addiction is if you keep doing something even though it hurts you. Our reliance on oil has been hurting us, phenomenally, at least since 1973. No one seriously denies it. But in spite of the fact that we could move our cars with electricity, and our goods on rail, our planes on biofuels; and in spite of our knowledge that at least half of the fuel we use each year is simply wasted, delivering no valuable transportation services; we keep on doing it. We keep on doing it even though the president -- without an act of Congress -- could simply establish a binding national policy that every year we will import less oil, until we stop completely.
If this were a Bond movie, there would be an evil character somewhere cackling, as once again we prepare to send our young men and women to die in the Persian Gulf. ("Those fools," he would mutter.) But there is no evil character. The oil exporters and the oil companies that feed our petroleum fix believe they are saving civilization.
And we listen to them. As my friend and Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows has educated me, frogs don't sit still in a pot as it is brought to a boil -- however slowly. When it hurts, they jump. Frogs, fortunately for them, cannot be lied to.
But addicts can. And apparently this country qualifies.
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