Friday, August 15, 2008

Fouling Our Own Nest


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Who ever would have thought that the rapid rise in the price of gasoline to $4 a gallon and up would be a winning political issue for the Republicans — you know, the party of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, all of whom were deeply involved in the oil business when they weren’t in public office? Nonetheless, that’s how it’s breaking, thanks largely to a relentless propaganda campaign from the Right-wing media machine and its political wing that has successfully persuaded millions of Americans that the skyrocketing gas prices are due, not to the machinations of oil companies, financial speculators, Middle Eastern sheikhs or the fact that oil is a nonrenewable resource that the world is running out of, but to those pesky environmentalists who won’t let the wonderful, noble folks from the oil industry drill off the U.S. coast.

The success of this campaign is readily apparent in the sweeping poll results. A nationwide poll released July 30 by CNN and Opinion Research Corporation showed 69 percent in favor of offshore drilling, while only 30 percent opposed it. A later poll by Rasmussen Associates tweaked the question a bit to eliminate any implication that more offshore drilling would necessarily bring gas prices down, but still revealed 62 percent in favor of more drilling now and only 27 percent against it. What made it an even more ominous issue for Democrats is that Rasmussen’s poll identified the presidential candidates by name with their positions on the issue: John McCain as pro-drilling and Barack Obama as against it. Even in California, where the world’s first offshore oil well was drilled and the first severe oil spill at one happened (in Santa Barbara in 1969), a Public Policy Institute poll released July 30 revealed 51 percent in favor of offshore drilling and 45 percent against it — a 10-percent jump in support for drilling since the same pollsters asked the same question a year before.

The Right’s propaganda victory is also vividly on display in how quickly the Democratic Party — which frankly ought to change its name to the Wimpocratic Party, given how readily and how totally it continually forsakes the interests and demands of its core constituents to chase the will-o’-the-wisp of so-called “swing voters” — has abandoned any shred of principle on this issue. Not long after John McCain reversed his own long-standing opposition to offshore drilling, Barack Obama did too, putting the environment on the long list of issues (ranging from the war in Iraq to “faith-based initiatives”) on which he’s signed on to the GOP’s positions and alienated the “change” voters who locked up the nomination for him. More recently, even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who’d previously stood courageously against the environmental wreckers in the Republican Party who want to trash America’s quality of life so their big-business sponsors can make quick profits — signaled her willingness to allow a Congressional vote on a bill to repeal the ban on offshore drilling in the outer continental shelf passed in 1982.

The prairie fires in support of offshore drilling — and the scared responses of politicians from both parties, particularly the Wimpocrats — stand in sharp contrast to the lack of evidence that allowing offshore drilling will actually do anything to lower current gas prices. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the United States has only two percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. What’s more, even offshore drilling supporters like Sara Banaszak of the American Petroleum Reserve admit that, especially in areas that haven’t been drilled offshore before and no industry infrastructure exists, it could take up to 15 years between the start of operations and any actual oil production — and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), a government agency, estimates that it would take 20 years for increased offshore drilling to bring down the price of gas. What’s more, according to NRDC, the amount of oil estimated to be recoverable from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) — which President Bush has been after from Day One in office — “would likely produce less fuel than what our country now consumes in just six months.”

Allowing offshore drilling now wouldn’t necessarily mean that the drilling itself would start immediately. If the 1982 ban were lifted tomorrow, the Department of the Interior would start offering permits to oil companies to drill on federally protected lands — but there wouldn’t be any deadline on the companies requiring them to start drilling at once. Indeed, according to “The Truth About America’s Energy,” a June 2008 report by the majority staff of the House Committee on Natural Resources, oil companies aren’t using the permits they already have. “In the last four years,” says the report, “the Bureau of Land Management has issued 28,776 permits to drill on public land; yet, in that same time, 18,954 wells were actually drilled.”

That’s a difference of nearly 10,000 permits that aren’t being used — and, according to the report, of the 44 million acres of offshore federal lands currently being leased to oil and natural gas companies, only 10.5 million are currently producing oil or gas. The statistics for onshore federal lands are similar; 47.5 million acres under lease, of which only 13 million acres are producing. The report argues that if oil and gas companies would just use the federal leases they already have, “that would nearly double total U.S. oil production, and increase natural gas production by 75 percent. It would also cut U.S. oil imports by more than a third, and be more than six times the estimated peak production from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).”

Nonetheless, the facts don’t seem able to stem the drill-o-mania. The same CNN poll that showed 69 percent of Americans supporting offshore drilling also indicated (based on a separate sample) that only 51 percent of it actually believed authorizing drilling would reduce gas prices within one year. The analyses above have been pooh-poohed by the Right-wing drill-o-maniacs, who claim that the U.S. has significant unproven oil reserves (in a country that’s been more picked over than a porcupine over the last 160 years? I don’t think so!) and that oil companies wouldn’t do anything so seemingly stupid as to withhold lease land from production when crude prices are at near-record highs. (Yes, they would; a highly cartelized industry like oil, dominated by a handful of multinational corporations, can get away with responding to high prices by keeping production low so prices can rise even higher.)

At this rate, we’re heading for an election season in which the word “environmentalist” will be almost as toxic politically as the word “terrorist,” and once again the Republicans will sweep to a Presidential election victory by proclaiming themselves the party of the common people and the Democrats as hopeless elitists helplessly in thrall to Brie-eating, French-speaking upper-class environmentalist scum. Needless to say, neither party’s pandering politicians will dare speak the obvious home truth about energy, which is that, despite the intense short-term pain and damage to many Americans (particularly the working-class and working-poor people who can least afford it), in the long term $4 per gallon gas is a good thing. Not only does it discourage consumption of an environmentally wasteful product, it also encourages the use of alternative energy. Contrary to popular belief, practical renewable energy technologies exist now — indeed, they have since the 1970’s — and what’s holding back their adoption is that they’re still too expensive for most consumers. Anything that lowers that cost difference — whether it makes renewables cheaper or non-renewables costlier — is positive.

What’s most interesting is that not only do the drill-o-maniacs ignore the environmental carnage that their strategy would ensure — not only the direct damage from oil spills but the increased pollution and greenhouse gas emissions — they positively seem to revel in it. Maybe they believe the late Ayn Rand’s secular heresy that taking regulatory fetters off the super-entrepreneurs of her dreams and letting “the market” work its magic will automatically bring forth technological solutions to technology’s problems. Or maybe a lot of these people are also fundamentalist Christians who aren’t worried about the world surviving the next century or two because they believe God is going to destroy it anyway in the Last Judgment and doom the rest of us sinners to a living hell while they, the Right-wing Righteous, will be “enraptured” up to heaven.

Be that as it may, the Right has zeroed in on all the most environmentally destructive energy sources they can think of, and while they pay lip service to the eventual development of renewable alternatives they insist that the immediate priority should be non-renewable energy sources that destroy every conceivable basis for human survival. These are the people who support blowing up entire mountaintops to extract the coal beneath. They are pointing to the development of oil shale in Jordan and arguing that as a solution for the U.S., even though extracting oil from shale means literally destroying so much of the earth that by comparison coal mining looks like a garden party.

And, of course, they’re madly in love with nuclear power, the dirtiest, foulest, most heavily polluting energy source ever conceived by the mindlessness of man. When they’re not busy denying that global warming is happening at all, the Right and the energy industry are hailing “safe, clean, efficient” nuclear power as the solution to it. Nonsense: when you count the entire cycle of mining uranium ore, refining it, enriching it and putting it in reactors, nuclear energy heavily contributes to carbon generation. Nuclear plants not only have the potential for dangerous accidents — do the names “Three Mile Island” and “Chernobyl” mean anything to you? — but they’re also inviting targets for terrorists; had Osama bin Laden sent his hijacked planes into a working nuclear power reactor instead of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the death toll from 9/11 would have likely been in the millions instead of in the thousands. Nuclear waste remains highly toxic for over 100,000 years — 1,000 times longer than any single human civilization has ever existed — reason enough to send this technology into the oblivion of bad ideas.

The simple truth is that the world can no longer afford Big Energy in all its forms. Over the last 170 years — since the U.S. invented oil drilling in 1839 — energy production has become increasingly centralized. A nation whose individual households used to be energy-sufficient — when “energy” meant hewing firewood for heat, making candles out of tallow for light and feeding hay to horses for transportation — soon came under the thumb of giant corporations developing new energy technologies and selling them for high profits. The U.S. ran so far ahead of the rest of the world in switching from individual to corporate energy that today our country, which contains six percent of the world’s population, consumes 25 to 33 percent of its resources. And as the world’s two largest nations, China and India, develop larger middle classes (thanks largely to U.S. corporations “outsourcing” industrial production to China and customer service and computer work to India), they too are clamoring to join the wasteful party and hastening the coming energy apocalypse.

What makes renewable energy virtuous is that not only does it offer a way out of the sickening spiral of resource exhaustion, pollution and global warming that threatens all human life, it also promises a return to individual self-reliance and self-sufficiency in energy. Many renewable sources, particularly solar energy, don’t have economies of scale; instead of setting up huge arrays of solar panels in the desert and bringing the power in on long lines, losing a lot of it along the way, it makes more sense, especially in a climate like San Diego’s, for each home to have its own solar collectors and produce all or most of its own power. One would think this would appeal to conservatives who are continually brandishing the rhetoric of “individualism” and “self-reliance,” but in practice the Right is so in thrall to the giant corporations that provide both its ideology and its funding that they can’t support anything that threatens their continued profits as energy providers.

When I did needle exchange as a volunteer for ACT UP San Diego in the early 1990’s, I met addicts who were so old and had been shooting drugs for so long that they had burned out all the veins in their arms and were reduced to injecting in their legs. I even met a few who had done it so long they had burned out all the veins in their legs, too, and had to slash their feet open to provide a pathway in which to inject. If the U.S. follows the energy strategy of the drill-o-maniacs, we will be like those poor, pathetic drug addicts, butchering the earth for a last few bits of our precious “high.” And instead of leadership from our politicians, we’re getting the siren song of the pushers: a promise that if we just pay more money and do more long-term damage to ourselves and our environment, we can keep our gasoline “jones” going indefinitely.

A species that fouls its own nest — which is what the drill-o-maniacs are demanding we do — cannot and does not deserve to survive. It’s not clear how long the world can sustain its current pattern of energy exploitation and usage, but given all the factors against it — the gradual exhaustion of petroleum and other non-renewable resources, the immediate pollution, the lowering of the “energy profit” from non-renewable sources (the difference between the amount of energy needed to extract a fuel and the amount released by using it) and the overhanging threat from global warming — it’s readily apparent to reality-based analysts that the status quo can’t last more than a century or two. Some “peak oil” theorists argue that we’ve already passed the point of no return where we could have managed a seamless transition to renewable energy without drastic reductions in either the size of the human population or its overall standard of living. But whether that’s the case, it’s self-evident that the longer we attempt to keep the fossil-fuel party going, the greater the risk that the human race will render itself extinct.