Problems point to oil's impact

BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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Black Gold?

Oil: We're running out of it. It makes our country vulnerable to foreign powers. Burning it causes irreversible harm to our environment.

And where are our elected officials? At home, on leave, enjoying vacation.

This was a discouraging summer for the environment. As the world approaches the peak production of conventional petroleum — the maximum annual rate at which we will ever extract crude oil from the Earth — and the price of gasoline rises above three bucks a gallon, you'd think we might have a plan for what will be the next fuel that powers our society.

Up until now, the only plan has been to look in increasingly difficult places to find more oil, like under a mile of water in the Gulf of Mexico. See how well that worked out? Or we could extract oil from nonconventional sources, like the oil sands of Canada, with huge impacts on air and water pollution. Believe it or not, companies are still pursuing these precarious avenues to fossil energy.

As the supply of home-grown petroleum dwindles, the world's oil market depends on Middle Eastern countries, many of which harbor factions striving to bring down Western society.

And each gallon of gasoline we burn adds nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Collectively, petroleum products are responsible for about a third of our nation's carbon dioxide emissions, which lead to global warming.

We know too much to justify inaction. Scientists show huge agreement on the reality of human effects on climate and the economic, social, and health impacts that will follow. We are fast approaching the point where our emissions of carbon dioxide will make undesirable climate change inevitable. No reputable scientist questions this — and more often than not, prominent naysayers are motivated by politics and industry payroll.

Have we done anything about any of these problems? No. Without the needed 60-vote majority in hand, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was forced to postpone action on both the climate bill and a smaller, watered-down energy bill before the Senate left for summer recess. Clearly, the business-as-usual lobby has prevailed in the halls of Congress and amongst the U.S. electorate, which seems unconcerned about all these problems.

This past week, reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggested the oil from BP's Deepwater Horizon well was fast dissipating from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Yet, many officials admit they don't know where it went. Despite extensive work by Samantha Joye, a marine biogeochemist at the University of Georgia, showing the presence of an underwater plume of oil, NOAA has only grudgingly admitted its existence. Aided by the use of toxic dispersal agents, this plume of oil has the potential to mix globally, affecting marine ecosystems everywhere.

Many senior officials in the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency have testified that maintaining the supply of oil from the Middle East and dealing with the effects of climate change are among the largest security risks facing this country.

Melting Arctic ice, rising sea level and the potential for global crop failure create the potential need for U.S. military interventions worldwide and compound the costs of doing such operations. Climate change is not only a problem for tree-huggers.

There is a better way. For a small fraction of what we have spent on the Iraq war, we could have started a massive research and development effort to improve the efficiency and lower the costs of solar power for electricity and improve the efficacy of biofuels to power our cars and transport. Funding for these efforts and general deficit reduction could derive from a tax on carbon-based fossil fuels, rather than a cap-and-trade system that simply ensures all the fossil fuels we know of will eventually be burned.

Realizing these better ways to power our society will require us to upset the lobby of entrenched businesses that benefit from continuing in the old ways. The power grid must be decentralized from large electric utilities. The cost of gasoline should reflect the true costs that our society pays to keep the oil flowing from the Middle East. Only then will the new ways of achieving prosperity without irreversible environmental impact be within our reach.

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies | Millbrook, New York 12545 | Tel (845) 677-5343

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