Category Archive 'Petroleum'

13 Jun 2010

“A Blessing, Not an Addiction”

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Jeff Jacoby, in the Boston Globe, debunks the Puritan meme of an addiction to petroleum.

The explosion of BP’s oil rig in the Gulf has been a calamity in so many ways, above all the loss of 11 human lives. With hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil gushing daily from the crippled wellhead, the environmental impacts have been excruciating. BP is responsible for a dreadful mess, one that will take years and many millions of dollars to clean up.

Awful as the catastrophe has been, however, life without oil would be far, far worse.

Americans consume oil not because they are “addicted’’ to it, but because it enriches their lives, making possible prosperity, comfort, and mobility that would have been all but unimaginable just a few generations ago. Almost by definition, an addiction is something one is healthier without. But oil-based energy improves human health and reduces poverty — it makes life longer, safer, and better. Addictions debase life. Oil improves and expands it.

“Oil may be the single most flexible substance ever discovered,’’ writes the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce in “Power Hungry,’’ a new book on the myths of “green’’ energy. “More than any other substance, oil helped to shrink the world. Indeed, thanks to its high energy density, oil is a nearly perfect fuel for use in all types of vehicles, from boats and planes to cars and motorcycles. Whether measured by weight or by volume, refined oil products provide more energy than practically any other commonly available substance, and they provide it in a form that’s easy to handle, relatively cheap, and relatively clean.’’ If oil didn’t exist, Bryce quips, we’d have to invent it.

Of course there are problems created by oil, as the Deepwater Horizon calamity so heartbreakingly demonstrates. But most things of great value come with downsides. There are 40,000 traffic fatalities in the United States each year, but no rational person suggests doing away with cars, trucks, and highways. Airplanes sometimes crash and boats sometimes sink, but air and sea travel are not derided as “addictions’’ we need to break. Deaths due to hospital infections, medication errors, or unnecessary surgery number in the scores of thousands annually, but who would recommend an end to medical care?

Someday there may be an energy source that is as abundant, efficient, clean, and economically viable as oil. But nothing today fits that bill — certainly not biofuels, wind farms, or solar power. Besides, it isn’t only energy products that we get from petroleum. Crude oil refining also makes possible plastics, synthetic fibers, lubricants, waxes, asphalt. “Other products made from petroleum,’’ notes the US Energy Information Administration, “include ink, crayons, bubble gum, dishwashing liquids, deodorant, eyeglasses, CDs and DVDs, tires, ammonia, [and] heart valves.’’

We are not “addicted” to oil. That is a metaphor based on the generally illusory notion of addiction, and it is wrong. We need petroleum or an equivalent source of energy to fuel our vehicles, heat and light our homes, and to operate our machines… to live. We also need food in pretty much the same way. Does it make sense to assert that we are addicted to food? We use petroleum because it is currently the cheapest fuel source. If there were not politicians backed by armed men with guns, at home and abroad, levying whopping extortion fees on any and all petroleum extracted from the ground, it would be really, really cheap.

The cost of the energy we use is not really a problem. We have so little difficulty affording it, that we let our own government attach huge taxes to every gallon we consume and we let primitives in far off lands squat on top of oil supplies and accumulate trillions by charging us for oil we discovered and extract for them. If the cost of petroleum really bothered anybody, we would insist on allowing oil drilling not only in the incredibly remote Arctic howling wilderness, but in everyone’s backyard. If the cost were a genuine problem, we’d have long ago sent the marines into a number of Middle Eastern countries and put all their rulers out of the oil business and back into the sheep herding/caravan ambushing business again.


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