With gasoline prices now north of $4 a gallon, and the summer driving season upon us, politicians have predictably resumed pandering to the oil industry and those who think we can drill our way back to cheaper energy. Efforts to repeal multi-billion dollar tax breaks for the oil industry ran into the usual festival of K Street lobbyists and oil company CEOs pleading for benefits they neither need nor deserve. In the New York Times, John Broder recently reported that President Obama was moving to speed up drilling for oil and gas:
... [in a] concession to his critics at a time when consumers are paying near-record prices at the gas pump. The Republican-led House passed three bills in the last 10 days that would significantly expand and accelerate oil development in the United States, saying the administration was driving up gas prices and preventing job creation with antidrilling policies.
The willingness of the industry and their political pals to mislead the public is truly breathtaking. As economists like to say, "all things held equal," increased production of oil could lower the price of gasoline by increasing supply. But in the real world, all things are never held equal. If oil drilled on American land and sea was required to stay in America, an increased supply of local oil might have an impact on local price. But oil, like everything else, is part of a global economy. The oil drilled in the United States enters a global market place where demand for energy continues to grow. While the rapid price rise may well be a function of speculation, the long-term trend toward higher-priced gasoline is caused by the growth in the number of automobiles outside the United States.
While the rate of growth in auto sales in China is slowing down due in part to higher gasoline costs, Li Fangfang wrote recently in China Daily that: "The nation sold 1.08 million of cars, sport utility vehicles, multipurpose vehicles and minivans during the month, a rise of just 1.3 percent from April 2010." Still, a million new vehicles a month adds up. Brazil, India and Russia -- the other three "BRIC" nations are also increasing their demand for private automobiles at a rapid rate. That growth along with continued high demand in the U.S. and other developed nations is one cause of increased gasoline prices.
It's funny that you don't hear much about the complexities of the global economy when the drilling lobby talks about the price of gasoline. I guess no one wants to admit that we put our natural resources at risk in order to extract oil that might end up in cars stuck in traffic in Rio or Shanghai.
With nuclear energy in trouble after the Japanese earthquake, hydrofracking under continued assault in the United States and gasoline growing in price, the energy issue is once again moving to the center of the political agenda. There is little question that over the next hundred years we will need to transition off of fossil fuels to renewable energy. The planet simply can't absorb all of this drilling and burning and continue to provide breathable air and drinkable water at the same time. When the planet hits 10 billion people at the end of the 21st century and auto ownership grows in Africa along with these BRIC nations, the pressure on fossil fuel generation will simply be overwhelming.
What we really need is a moon shot-like 10-year research project to come up with a technological fix to our energy dilemma. I see two possibilities: 1. Smaller, lower cost solar cells and more effective battery technology, and/or; 2. a less risky nuclear technology that does not create waste, or utilize material that can be used in weapons. Of course, as a political scientist, my understanding of the technological possibilities should not be trusted. Still -- what are our real choices? As I see it these are our energy options:
Option 1: Shut off the lights and sit alone in the cold and dark.
Option 2: Burn up every fossil fuel we can dig out of the earth's crust until the air, land and water no longer support human life.
Option 3: Come up with a renewable alternative.
Option 1 wouldn't work because if you shut down the modern technology-based economy the food riots alone would force us to start the machine back up. Option 2 won't work because even if we manage to survive the degradation of our planet's biosphere we would eventually run out of earth's finite resources. That leaves renewable energy as our only real option. The only issue is how quickly we can make the transition from a non-sustainable energy economy to a sustainable one. While we need private corporations to commercialize whatever technologies we develop, we need government to fund the basic research and development needed to lower the cost of renewable energy.
The constant clamor to drill our way out of the energy crisis is a cynical and deceptive distraction. The emphasis on short term solutions and consumption at the expense of our children's well-being has become hard wired into the political debate. We see it in the discussions on the deficit, where rethinking how we tax and spend is politically infeasible. We see it in the energy discussion, where oil executives awash in profit shamelessly defend their tax privileges. Our political process no longer seems capable of making tough choices and deferring gratification to build a better future. Somehow, "yes we can" has become "no we won't."