The Oil Question

24 Jan

The political arguments over oil drilling go on interminably. They almost amount to a Kabuki Theatre set-piece, they are so predictable. Environmental damage vs dependence of foreign oil; there really isn’t a lot of variation. And what annoys me the most is what nobody seems ready to come out and say.

Our civilization runs on oil. That would be true even if tomorrow we woke up and all our cars had been replaced with magical vehicles that ran on happy thoughts. Oil fuels ships, planes, trains. Oil is the basis of the vast majority of our lubricants, and almost all of our plastics, and many of our fabrics. Nobody who thinks we could live comfortably without plastic is giving the matter any real thought.
Just as importantly; absent an incredible technological breakthrough, our cars are going to run on oil for the foreseeable future. Even supposing that a satisfactory all-electric car could be put into production, the electricity to take up the huge expenditure of energy represented by the driving public simply does not exist. And given the ritual opposition of large segments of the population to the construction of new power plants anywhere, for any reason, it isn’t going to exist soon.
So, anywhere there is oil to be drilled for it will be drilled for, sooner or later. No oil reserves are likely to be left alone forever for environmental reasons. The issue, if anybody had the guts to confront it, is not whether to drill for oil, but when. Is there, on the horizon, technology that will make it measurably safer to drill under certain conditions? Then maybe a delay is justified. But to pretend that we are never going to drill for oil in a certain spot, is a delusion.
Oil is not an unnatural toxin that destroys everything it touches. Before man had any use for it, it simply seeped to the surface in many places, and the environment dealt with it. Yes, a man made spill is many hundreds of thousands of gallons more than the environment normally deal with, but multiple studies have shown that ‘damaged’ beaches left alone recover faster than beaches cleaned with detergent and good intentions.
And then there is the issue of ‘foreign oil’. Depending on sources outside of our control has already caused a great deal of grief. But there are, I think, arguments for continuing to do so. If we use the oil in the middle east before we go after our own oil, then when we have used it up, we can allow the formerly oil-rich Arab states to return to the 16th century, where they apparently prefer to live, and ignore them thereafter. Naturally there would be problems with this strategy, but I find it strange that nobody even talks about it.
Like most hotly argued political/economic issues the pursuit of oil is not disputed in terms of demonstrable facts. This is true of both sides, although I have a personal prejudice that makes me feel that the anti-drilling side is the further divorced from reality. What is wanted is any breath of reason, because if we wait to actually examine the facts until gasoline is $10 a gallon, the decisions will necessarily be hasty and any real environmental or diplomatic concerns are likely to get short shrift.
A time is coming, soon, when it will be absolutely necessary to start drilling for oil and building new electric generators, just to keep warmth and transportation within the reach of the poor. When that time arrives, environmentalists who insist on trotting out the old “no new drilling, no new power plants, no new power lines” mantra are going to get kicked to the side. And at the moment that would be the vast majority of environmentalists. That can’t be good. Concern for the environment should inform our decisions. But it should be realistic concern. We are not, as a people, going to give up personal transportation, or all start riding bicycles.  Maybe an argument can be made that we should, but not an argument that is going to get listened to. We need to have this conversation, on a basis of actual problems and reasonable limits. And we need to have it soon.
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