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John Robbins

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The Choices Before Us

Posted: 06/21/10 01:32 PM ET

There are a lot of different ways people are responding to the tragic events currently take place in the Gulf of Mexico. Some right wing pundits -- including Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh -- have been blaming the worst human-caused environmental catastrophe in the nation's history on, of all people, environmentalists. In a stunning twist of oxymoronic logic, the people whose mantra is "drill, baby, drill" have been placing the fault for this disastrous result of offshore drilling, on those who have opposed offshore drilling.

In his May 17th broadcast, Limbaugh complained: "What the environmental wackos are making us do is drill down 35,000 feet, when there's oil practically begging to be taken out of the ground in areas that are now off-limits because of U.S. regime regulations." William Kristol agreed, saying that it if weren't for restrictions passed "after the Santa Barbara incident 40 years ago," we would be drilling closer to shore, in shallower water, and everything would be okay.

Such statements make dramatic political theater, but their connection to reality is minimal to nonexistent. According to the federal agency in charge of offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service, there are today 3,417 active shallow-water oil platforms operating close to shore in the Gulf of Mexico. This is more than 100 times as many platforms as are operating further out, in water depths of more than 1,000 feet.

But Kristol is right about one thing. The "Santa Barbara incident" he refers to did in fact help give birth to the modern environmental movement. That's because, at the time, people responded to a horrible offshore oil spill not by blaming those who took threats to the biosphere seriously, but by mobilizing to protect the environment.

Here's what happened: On January 28, 1969, an oil well being drilled six miles offshore by Union Oil Company of California (now part of Chevron) suffered a blowout. It took ten days to plug, during which 100,000 barrels of crude oil poured into the Santa Barbara Channel and onto the beaches of Santa Barbara. As the oil slick grew to cover 800 square miles, there was widespread shock and outrage. One reporter called it a sacrilege, and another said it was like watching mud thrown at the Mona Lisa. Californians were horrified as waves, thick with crude oil, broke on shore with a sinister silence. Many publicly burned their gasoline credit cards in protest.

As anger swept the nation, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which to this day requires environmental impact assessments and statements for all actions involving federal agencies that could have a significant effect on the environment. The following spring, millions of people took part in the first Earth Day. In the two years following the oil spill, more environmental legislation was passed than at any other time in the nation's history. It was during this period that President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and signed the Clean Air Act.

But the Santa Barbara oil spill was child's play compared to what's happening now. Every single day, the BP catastrophe (also called the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) is vomiting as much crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico as was spilled in the entire duration of the Santa Barbara disaster. This assault against the natural world on which our lives depend has been going on since April 20th, and no one knows when it will stop. The best-case scenario at present is that relief wells may be operative by August, by which time something like five to ten million barrels (210 to 420 million gallons) of oil will have gushed into the ocean. But it is by no means certain that the relief wells will succeed in terminating the flow of oil. Worst-case scenarios, which include the whole seabed of the Gulf collapsing, are so dire that they are difficult to comprehend, with the most extreme rivaling worldwide nuclear war in their apocalyptic implications to life on earth.

There remains a great deal of uncertainty about how bad this will be. What's certain is that we are now at a far greater turning point in the history of our relationship to oil than we were 40 years ago when the Santa Barbara incident took place. The millions of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico now add to the other massive burdens that stem from our oil addiction. Climate change, the trade deficit, military entanglements in the Middle East and Venezuela, air pollution in our cities, and rapidly growing rates of asthma among our children are other consequences of our unabated oil consumption. It is no exaggeration to say that how we respond to the current upheaval will help determine the future of this nation, and indeed what manner of civilization our planet can sustain in the generations to come.

The good news is this: Contrary to what might logically be inferred from the pronouncements of some right wing pundits, oil consumption is not akin to a constitutional right. Nor is oil equivalent to the oxygen we need to breathe. Rather, it is an addiction. A formidably tenacious addiction, yes, but an addiction from which we may yet recover.

Weaning our economy from the addiction to oil would certainly mean making fundamental changes in the way we live, and thus far, despite being drawn into war after war in pursuit of oil, we have not been willing to make those changes. But as I describe in my recently published book The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less, there are ways to cut down substantially on the amount of oil we consume that can actually improve the quality of our lives. And there is a precedent for the size and speed of the call to action before us.

Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. resisted becoming engaged in World War II. But after the attack, which took place in December 1941, the country immediately began a massive restructuring of the economy in order to mobilize for the war effort. Less than a month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt announced the goals, which included immediately producing massive numbers of tanks, planes, and anti-aircraft guns. He met with automobile industry leaders, including the heads of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, and told them the country would need them to totally redirect their production facilities in order for the nation to reach these arms production objectives. Soon, the sale of private automobiles was banned. For nearly three years, no cars were produced in the United States, other than those for the army, navy, coast guard, and other military services. In addition, highway and residential construction was halted.

When Roosevelt originally announced that the U.S. would need 60,000 planes, experts said it would be impossible to come anywhere close to that number. But as a result of the massive redirection of the country's productivity, the nation's needs for planes, tanks, and other military requirements were fully met, and greatly ahead of schedule. In the three years beginning with 1942, the U.S. far exceeded the initial goal, turning out 230,000 aircraft.

The speed and extent of this economic conversion was astounding, as was its impact. Military historians almost universally agree that without it, the Allied Forces would have lost the war.

The mobilization of resources that took place within a matter of months is a compelling demonstration that we can restructure the economy swiftly and effectively, if we are convinced of the need to do so. But so far, the prevailing response to the BP oil disaster has been about using safer drilling methods. This strikes me as equivalent to heroin addicts using clean needles. It's an improvement that does absolutely nothing to challenge the addiction itself.

But what if we were to respond to the tragedy taking place in the Gulf of Mexico and the many other disastrous consequences of our addiction to oil with the same level of urgency and commitment our nation displayed in restructuring the economy during World War II?

Albert Einstein once famously said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." What if we were to truly think outside the box and seek, not just to make our addiction more palatable, but to truly overcome it? Too expensive to contemplate, you think? The oil companies have amassed $289 billion in profits over the last three years. The U.S. imports more than $300 billion worth of oil every year. What if that kind of money was used to move us away from a petroleum-based economy?

We have the technology, if we have the will. Consider, for example, what would happen if we made an immediate and massive commitment to plug-in hybrid cars (and other electric vehicles).

As I explain in The New Good Life, plug-in hybrids are a quantum leap over current hybrids. Though they are not yet commercially available, they will be very soon, and could be within months. They get 100 miles per gallon or more, but the advantages go way beyond fuel efficiency. It's not an exaggeration to say that plug-in hybrids could help save us from oil dependence, air pollution, and a deteriorating atmosphere. By dispensing with 80 to 90 percent of the gasoline used by conventional cars, these vehicles could play a key role in breaking our addiction to petroleum.

It's not just environmentalists who are agog about plug-ins. One of the foremost advocates in the country for these vehicles is R. James Woolsey. A former director of the Central Intelligence Agency who spent three years as a member of then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board, Woolsey is on the board of directors for the electric vehicle advocacy group Plug In America. He is also a founding member of the Set America Free Coalition, whose support for plug-ins recognizes the national security problems of the U.S.'s current oil dependence. Even before the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico took place, the organization declared: "Ninety-seven percent of the fuel used in U.S. transportation is petroleum-based, and two-thirds of our oil is imported. With gas prices on the rise and no end in sight, our cars' addiction to oil is bankrupting us. And because so much of the oil we import comes from countries that hate us, we're actually helping to bankroll terrorists that hunt us. As long as our cars can only run on gasoline, we'll continue to be held hostage."

A commonly raised question about plug-in technology is whether you are simply trading one form of pollution for another--tailpipe emissions for power-plant smokestack emissions. In 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Electric Power Research Institute conducted the definitive "wells-to-wheels" life-cycle analysis to find out. It turns out that power-plants are vastly more efficient than internal combustion engines. The study found that a shift by the United States to plug-in vehicles would reduce pollution spectacularly. The reduction in carbon emissions alone is prodigious -- it would surpass five hundred million tons annually -- and other exhaust pollutants would similarly decline.

The study also found that the existing U.S. power grid could easily handle the load of three-quarters of Americans switching to plug-ins, even if the rest of the nation's commercial and residential power consumption continued on its present scale. These vehicles will generally recharge at night, using excess electricity from power plants that can't shut down completely, so they won't add to the peak load. "Recharging batteries with off-peak, wind-generated electricity," says Lester Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, "costs the equivalent of less than $1 per gallon of gasoline."

A large-scale shift to plug-in hybrid cars would massively reduce gasoline use, eliminate our dependence on imported oil, rid us of the need for offshore drilling, and dramatically decrease air pollution and carbon emissions. If we were, at the same time, to build thousands of wind farms across the country to feed renewable, nonpolluting energy into the electrical grid, we could run our cars entirely on energy from the wind. This would rejuvenate farm and ranch communities, and shrink the U.S. balance-of-trade deficit.

Assembly lines that formerly made 20th century cars and trucks could be used to produce 21st century plug-in hybrids, other electric vehicles and wind turbines, revitalizing Detroit and other cities (including New Orleans and other areas whose economies have been devastated by the BP oil disaster). Though there would be jobs lost in the transition, many more could be gained. Those whose jobs would be lost, as well as those who are currently unemployed, could be trained to perform many of these new jobs. And even more jobs could become available in the development of algae-based biofuels and other biofuels made from nonfood sources.

Just as plug-in hybrid cars represent an extraordinary opportunity to wean the transportation sector off of dependence on fossil fuels, so too can we find abundant options in other areas of our society. From what we eat to the houses we live in, from how we manufacture our goods to the efficiency of our workplaces, from how we plan our cities to the lifestyle choices we make, we are awash with opportunities to build a new, more sustainable and self-sufficient economy.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is already a colossal environmental and economic disaster. It is one of the most ominous events of our lifetimes. But if it raises into our awareness just how intolerable a price we are paying for our addiction to oil, and if it sparks the commitment that is required to truly go "beyond petroleum," then out of something unutterably dark and brutal we will have wrested something precious. Out of this monstrous tragedy we will have taken a healing step toward a livable future for all generations to come.

Adapted from the newly released book The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less, by John Robbins. For information about the author, visit johnrobbins.info

 
 
 

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