EM Reprint: When the Drilling Stops

1 12 2009

(Originally published September 8, 2008)

If nothing else came out of this year’s Republican National Convention, it was the chant of “drill baby, drill!” Because nothing solves an energy crisis like drilling for a finite resource. Incredibly, a writer for The Economist agrees:

The best reason to drill is the fact that oil is expensive and can be sold for a great deal of money, which can then be used to purchase things. I’ve also mentioned before that the fact drilling won’t move consumer prices much actually strengthens the case for drilling, since it reduces the environmental and social costs of burning and using the fuel which partially offset the gains from selling the oil.

So little quoted, so much to rebut.

1. “[O]il is expensive and can be sold for a great deal of money, which can then be used to purchase things.” Okay…? Sold by whom? For how much money? Which will be spent on… what?

Imagine, if you will, an island full of trees. Its human inhabitants have the option to chop down trees to use for paper, building materials, firewood, and other things. But the trees grow back at a given rate, and don’t reach maturity for several years. This island has no trade pact/contact with anyone else, so imports and exports aren’t an option. Logic dictates that if trees are to be consumed, there must be a balance struck between logging and preservation. After all, trees in this scenario are renewable in theory, but finite in practice.

One day, the needs of this society exceeds the status quo. More trees must be chopped down and processed. In turn, more trees need to be planted to maintain the cycle, but the balance shifts to the point where the status quo simply cannot be maintained. The decision is made to “chop baby, chop” until all of the trees have been felled and processed, leaving nothing for immediate consumption.

In a market as vast as the oil industry, this scenario seems unlikely. “Peak oil” never arrives, seemingly, and prices were low within the past decade, so why can’t they come down with a little more drilling? Or more to the point, which is lost in the political rhetoric of the day, why can’t “we” cash in on that action? (The above quote obliquely suggests this.)

In my simplified example, the felled trees were good for the economy, as they could be used to cook food (never mind that the ecosystem is disrupted by the deforestation), build houses (which don’t help much if people starve to death, or create paper (to write books about the good works of the timber industry). I don’t say this to demonize the timber or oil industries. I am suggesting that a finite resource, consumed to its end, has dramatic and perhaps irreversible consequences. It can be argued that the trees would grow back over time, but the humans would no longer derive any benefits from them, having died off years earlier.

Perhaps the fictional society could have used their largesse to build boats and sail off to someplace less restrictive. That doesn’t erase the core behavior of overconsumption to the point of crisis.

Thus: What “things” will be bought with “our” oil largesse? Why aren’t “we” doing it now?

2. I’m at a complete loss to comprehend the second half of the above quote. How does drilling for oil in more places globally reduce the environmental impact of drilling? If I dig a hole in your front yard, and then make amends by digging holes in your back and side yards, how have I reduced my “shoveling footprint”? I’m going to take a wild guess in the absence of meaningful context and assume that the author believes that introducing more sources for an already fungible (yet finite) resource will take the pressure off of any single source point, thus reducing deeper digging or any other eco-unfriendly practices. Uh huh.

As for the “social costs”, I suppose this is the old “but everyone else is drilling for oil” argument. How did that work on your parent(s)?

3. I can’t stress enough the importance of asking who the “we” is, when “we” are said to benefit from “our” economic policies. Suppose “we” drill tomorrow, without any barriers to the undertaking. Drill whatever, wherever, whenever. Take that oil to market and reap in the financial rewards.

  • Who did the drilling?
  • Who reaped the financial benefits?
  • What will that money be used for?

Did you answer, “the oil companies, the oil companies, and to lobby politicians to stay out of the oil companies’ business“? My, aren’t you cynical.

4. Upon further review, I think the author of the above quote is advocating for more drilling as a form of price fixing. Which lays waste to the bumper-sticker politics of “drill here, drill now, pay less.” I suppose “less” in that fixed pricing means less than whatever the price would have risen to if left unchecked. But that’s not what the voting public is being led to believe. “Less” means “less than $4 a gallon,” rhetorically speaking. Not exactly.

It is amusing that bumper stickers themselves are an excellent example of why the US won’t end its dependence on oil, foreign or otherwise. Bumper stickers are made out of PVC.

PVC is made partly out of – wait for it – petroleum.

Yes, arguably less than what is burned in a day in Los Angeles alone by motorists, but it’s oil just the same.

Which is why the rhetoric of “ending our addiction to oil” is bankrupt.

Let’s start with reducing. And not like the fictional tree-chopping island people mentioned above.

Whoops! Those tree-choppers weren’t fictional at all. Maybe we could learn something from their story. Will it fit on a bumper sticker?

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