The oil spill as seen from space, May 24, 2010.
There have been calls to boycott BP. (Disclosure: I get my gasoline at Costco.) I sympathize with and share the public’s anger at BP. But anger at one oil company, as if another company could not have just as easily done the same thing, is beside the point.
The heart of the problem lies with us humans in general, and we Americans in particular. It’s worth noting that all of the oil spilled between April 20th and the time of this post only equals about one hour’s worth of consumption in the United States. Americans make up 4.5% of the world’s population, but consume 24% of the world’s petroleum. This is not BP’s fault, although they certainly act as one of many enablers to America’s oil addition.
Obviously, the relationship between the government and the oil industry needs to be examined and reformed. For over a generation, the oil companies have enjoyed a buddy-buddy relationship with Washington, and have been able to view the Federal government as "a mere appendage to their affairs". It would be easy to blame this on the Republicans, who receive a greater share of political contributions from oil companies and are more resistant to alternative energy, but in truth this is a systemic problem which transcends parties.
Many, especially those living in the Gulf region, have criticized President Obama’s response to this crisis, and their criticism is apt. The Administration has pointed out that the President is neither an environmental scientist nor an oil rig engineer, and that he would just “get in the way” if he spent a lot of time down there. But such a defense points to a fundamental lack of understanding about the power of the Presidency. Harry Truman stated that the greatest power the President had was the “power to convince someone to do what they ought to do” – the power of persuasion. If you’re an oil company executive or an engineer, you’re going work a lot more urgently if the President of the United States is standing behind you breathing down your neck.
It’s not just the oil executives who need persuading. Our leaders, including President Obama, need to summon the courage to tell it like it is to the American people. Our addiction to oil is destroying our ecosystem, funding our enemies, and jeopardizing our economic future. The President needs to immediately sign an executive order halting further offshore oil exploration and draw a line in the sand by saying “as long as I am President, there will be no new offshore drilling. Our coastal waters do not belong to the oil companies; they belong to the American people.” He also needs to point out the ridiculously low prices Americans pay for gasoline, which has helped to fuel overconsumption. If the Europeans can live with $5/gallon gasoline, so can we. Of course, President Obama won’t do this. He’s no Harry Truman.
Finding a better way to get from here to there is not rocket science. We have the technology for alternative fuel vehicles that can run on electricity and natural gas. A decade ago, General Motors famously killed a popular electric car right out of the gate. Honda produces a natural gas version of their Civic, but just try getting one. Buses in many major cities, including Cleveland, already run on natural gas. Embracing these two approaches does not entail any great sacrifice. The other day, I saw a Vespa being driven down my street, and I thought, “gee, somebody gets it.” People can also start using bicycles for short distance trips, and considering the epidemic of obesity in the United States, we’ll be killing two birds with one stone. (Um, perhaps the bird analogy is out of place given the context of this post, but you know what I mean.) Certainly, there are some people who genuinely need larger vehicles, like farmers. But too many Americans buy large vehicles as extensions of their egos. In 1992, Jerry Brown, then a presidential candidate, proposed a “feebate” under which anyone who bought a gas guzzler would have to pay a $1000 fee to the government, while anyone who bought a fuel efficient vehicle would receive a $1000 rebate. A classic carrot and stick approach, Brown’s idea was ignored in the cheap energy era of the 1990s. It’s overdue for enactment.
The problem lies with us. The solution lies with us.
*Addendum: Another problem our nation needs to confront is suburban sprawl. The federal government must embrace policies which encourage people to live closer to where they work. In most cases, this means encouraging a return to cities and inner ring suburbs. It also means discouraging the continued growth of exhurbs. We must reverse the flight from the cities which took place from the 1960s onward. Part of this is by allowing the price of gasoline to rise to a sustainable level. Another solution is for more equitable funding of schools, so that city districts receive their fair share of funding. (America’s bass-akwards system of school funding is a subject for another post.)