Hidden Costs From Our Dependence on Fossil Fuels

05/24/2015 04:37 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2016

If you have ever visited Santa Barbara, it is absolutely beautiful -- except for the oil rigs visible offshore. In 1969 one of those rigs had a blowout that caused 4.2 million gallons of oil to spill. At the time it was the biggest disaster in U.S. waters. Subsequently, the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 put it in third place. It killed an estimated 3,500 sea birds and an incalculable number of marine animals and fouled the undersea vegetation, which in turn caused untold damage to the food chain for many years.

The Latest Spill

Just last week, on May 19, a pipeline rupture caused over 100,000 gallons to spill into Santa Barbara waters. The channel where the spill occurred is where warm water from the south mixes with cold water from the north, creating one of most bio-diverse habitats in the world, with over 800 species of sea creatures, from crabs and snails to sea lions and otters, and a forest of kelp and other undersea plants; it's also a place through which 19,000 gray whales migrate this time each year.

Pain at the Pump

As if the ecological damage and fouling of beaches frequented by visitors on Memorial Day weekend were not enough, prices at the pump are causing more pain -- especially in California, which is paying more for gas than other part of the country.

Hidden Costs of Using Fossil Fuels for Energy

It is estimated that 80 to 85 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. is from fossil fuels. One of the main reasons given for continuing to use this energy source is that it is much less expensive than alternatives. The true cost, however, depends on what you include in the calculation. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are so many costs not figured in the bills we pay for energy. The following includes just some of them:

  1. Human health problems caused by environmental pollution.
  2. Damage to the food chain from toxins absorbed and passed along.
  3. Damage to miners and energy workers.
  4. Damage to the earth from coal mining and fracking.
  5. Global warming caused by greenhouse gasses.
  6. Acid rain and groundwater pollution.
  7. National security costs from protecting oil sources and from terrorism (some of which is financed by oil revenues).

Additional Costs From Continued Subsidies

That's not all. In addition to the above costs, each and every U.S. taxpayer has been subsidizing the oil industry since 1916, when the oil depletion allowance was instituted. Government subsidies in the U.S. are estimated to be between $4 billion and $52 billion annually. The worldwide figure is pegged between $775 billion and $1 trillion. Why don't oil and gas companies and governments around the world divert at least some of these subsidies to invest in alternative clean energy sources? Rather than invest in the depleting and damaging energy sources of the past, isn't it time to look to the future and stop "kicking the can down the road"?

More Hidden Costs

While some call it an urban legend, others say quite emphatically that the oil industry conspired with the automobile industry and other vested interests to put streetcars out of business so that people would be forced to use automobiles and buses to get from point A to B -- selling more automobiles, tires, fuel, insurance, etc. Fact or fiction, many big cities (and especially Los Angeles, where alternatives are sparse) are choking from traffic gridlock. The first study on this subject determined that traffic congestion robbed the U.S. economy of $124 billion in 2013. That's an annual cost of $1,700 per household. This is expected to waste $2.8 trillion by 2030 if we do not take immediate measures to reverse the situation. For those who are skeptical, visit Los Angeles and try to drive around. Even with Waze, much more time and energy is wasted sitting in traffic than you could ever imagine. A commute that formerly took five to 10 minutes can now take upwards of an hour.

There Is a Solution

The solution to many of the problems related to gridlock, damage to the environment and human health includes the following:

  1. Clean energy and storage. Thank you, Elon Musk.
  2. More effective and efficient transportation (clean and safe mass transit, self-driving cars, and ride sharing services). Thanks, Google and Uber.
  3. Better marketing of, and accounting for, the true cost of the alternatives.
  4. Investment to do it.
  5. Political vision and will to transparently tell the truth and make the investment.

Doing the Right Thing Is Rarely Easy

While what is most worthwhile is rarely easy, it is necessary for the planet and living things that call it home. Rather than be afraid of the changes that are necessary, we should all be afraid of what is likely to happen if we don't make them.