06/07/2010 06:32 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Ask Not What Big Oil Can Do for You ...

Ask what you can do for Big Oil. Seriously, if a politician were to utter those words, he might be "clarifying my meaning" or insisting his words were "taken out of context" every day until the voters could throw him out of office. Not only would the thought drive people to derision, but the play on President Kennedy's clarion call to "ask what you can do for your country" would be, well, un-American. Who wants to help Big Oil - especially when so much of it comes from other countries?

Apparently, we do. In fact, we do it every day. It's called wasting oil. This may be a topic worth considering as we watch the stuff spreading in the Gulf of Mexico and on to coastal beaches and marshlands. We've had to drill off our shores (and risk oil spills) because we use so much oil and because our dependence on foreign oil is so great. Every one of us uses, on average, 22, 600 barrels of oil a year (2008 figures, U.S. Energy Information Administration), more than ten times the rate in China and twice that of most European nations. We import over 50 percent of the petroleum we need, and about half of that comes from just a few, terribly unstable countries.

Ponder just three examples of how we could help ourselves instead of Big Oil:

• A study by the HERO Program at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts found that, on average, cars burn 21 gallons of gas a day sitting in the drive-thru at one fast food restaurant. There are 78 drive-thru restaurants in Worcester, so that adds up to 597, 870 gallons a year. A barrel of oil yields 42 gallons of gasoline, so sitting in drive-thru lines with the motor running wastes 14,235 barrels of oil. If we assume that fast-food drive-thrus per capita are pretty much the same across the U.S, we can project the waste of 2.2 million barrels of oil a year. And we haven't even accounted for cars sitting in lines at banks, gas stations, and other drive-thru establishments. (And by the way, the government says you do not use more gas by turning your motor off and turning it on again.)

• Using figures on gas mileage provided by the Department of Energy, a car getting 30 miles a gallon that drives 75 mph instead of 55 mph for a 60 mile trip on the interstate would use half a gallon of gas more for the added speed. Using Department of Transportation figures of 715.6 billion miles traveled on interstates in 2008, the extra speed accounts for about 6 billion gallons of additional gasoline used. So our desire to drive 20 mph faster wastes about 143 million barrels of oil a year.

• In 2007, U.S. consumers used 8 billion gallons of bottled water. The Pacific Institute in Oakland, California estimates that producing and delivering what we can essentially get from the tap consumes nearly 20 million barrels of oil per year.

At $70 per barrel of oil, we are meeting our unintended pledge to "do for Big Oil" to the tune of at least $11.5 billion a year from these sources alone.

It's been nearly a half-century since President Kennedy asked us to do something for our country. Americans will rise to the challenge - and quite honorably and passionately - when a crisis such as 9/11 hits. But let's face it, sacrificing for your country does not exactly stimulate the masses most of the time. What we did after 9/11 was the exception, not the rule. Should we sacrifice more? Are we being asked to do enough? President Bush's chief request of Americans after 9/11 was to go shopping. President Obama has told us we will need to sacrifice, but he won't raise taxes on most of us and apparently thinks we should go shopping too - to help put people back to work.

As important as shopping may have been to show the terrorists they could not control us or may now be to help get the economy going again, it's not the only kind of sacrifice we need to make - and it certainly does nothing to reduce our dependence on oil.

If we're really tired of helping Big Oil, perhaps we could park the car instead of using the drive-thru, slow down a bit on the highway, and turn on the tap when we want a drink of water. Or is that too much to ask us to do for our country?