Sickening ourselves on oil

So, here we are again, watching – most of us helplessly – as a huge oil spill wreaks ecological chaos. This time, it’s the Gulf of Mexico and the states there arrayed who will be the direct targets of the latest mishap, although we’ll all pay, in some way, soon enough.

The ever-widening spill does its worst as the moronic phrase “Drill baby drill” is still ringing in our ears from the 2008 election (that was RNC chairman Michael Steele) and with President Obama’s ill-fated and poorly timed pronouncement just weeks ago that more U.S. coastal areas were fair game for more drilling. Meanwhile, many a pundit and columnist is lining up to say that maybe – just maybe – this is the disaster that pushes us into real action toward creating a better, cleaner and more comprehensive energy plan for our nation. And make it one that doesn’t rely on petroleum.

But I’m not so sure. Many roadblocks remain in the way: immensely powerful oil companies and their legions of lobbyists; flat-earthers who resist all evidence of the deleterious effects of burning stuff for energy (yes, including climate change); the average Joe and Jane who can’t see the forest of peak oil and long-term health problems for the trees of relatively cheap gas; and, last but not least, partisan bickering that threatens to hold up any meaningful change until …

Why sustainable energy has become such a partisan issue I will never truly understand. Do the Sarah Palins and Rush Limbaughs of the world really want their kids growing up in a cancer-ridden world of escalating temperatures, damaged environments and oil-choked oceans? The degree to which these folks promote an anti-science, anti-intellectual agenda to score cheap political points is nauseating indeed, but even worse are the folks who lap it up as gospel. I look at the tea partiers flailing about with no clear message other than “lower taxes, smaller government” and wish they’d take up a more useful message – like “smaller military, more government action to move our energy and economy into the 21st century.”

Or do they truly believe their utopian version of a tiny government will be able to steer this ship to the place we need to go? (I’ll give you a hint, tea partiers, it’s not going to be the BPs and Exxon-Mobils of the world – not so long as there’s a penny of profit left in oil.) Then again, maybe the tea partiers really believe that “Texas tea,” no matter its source, is the way of the future.

As the Gulf steeps in heavy crude that’s still gushing from a poorly designed (albeit “high-tech”) oil rig compliments of BP, the Obama administration fritters around the edges with a few wind credits here, some biofuel R&D money there – but no clarion call – a la JFK’s “send a man to the moon” – to really get us moving. Yes, it will be expensive, will take some time and won’t be easy. But if you think this spill is bad, wait until the other desperate measures we’ll need to employ come into play as “easy” oil disappears in the coming decades. There’s simply no getting around the fact that oil is a nasty, dirty fuel that – like coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas – should remain in the ground where it belongs. We may be dependent on it now, but if we don’t start weaning ourselves off the oil teat, we may as well start looking for another planet to inhabit.

The reality is the technologies for replacing fossil fuels exist. They just need to be developed, encouraged and funded. That’s where government can play its highest and best role, then step aside as private industry takes over. And if the sight of an oil slick the size of (name your ever-larger state) in the Gulf of Mexico isn’t enough inspiration to make meaningful changes, maybe this is: The 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska is still not even close to being completely cleaned up.

Summit Daily News | May 6, 2010

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