A Dangerous Appetite for Oil

Rob Nixon, NY Times, October 29, 2001

For 70 years, oil has been responsible for more of America's international entanglements and anxieties than any other industry. Oil continues to be a major source both of America's strategic vulnerability and of its reputation as a bully, in the Islamic world and beyond.

President Bush recently urged America to reduce its reliance on foreign oil. We can take his argument further: by scaling back our dependence on imported oil, we can not only strengthen national security but also enhance America's international image in terms of human rights and environmentalism.

Importing oil costs the United States over $250 billion a year, if one includes federal subsidies and the health and environmental impact of air pollution. America spends $56 billion on the oil itself and another $25 billion on the military defense of oil-exporting Middle Eastern countries. There are additional costs in terms of America's international reputation and moral credibility: our appetite for foreign fossil fuels has created a long history of unsavory marriages of convenience with petrodespots, generalissimos and fomenters of terrorism.

The United States currently finds itself in a coalition with Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Northern Alliance. Their human rights records range from bad to heinous. This is a conjuncture familiar to oil companies. From the Persian Gulf states to Indonesia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Angola and Nigeria, they have cozied up to dubious, often brutal regimes that allow corporations to operate with few environmental or human rights constraints.

Outside the West, the development of oil resources has repeatedly impeded democracy and social stability. The oil-extraction industry typically concentrates wealth and power and provides many incentives for corruption and iron-fisted rule. In most oil-exporting countries the gap between rich and poor widens over time. From the perspective of local people beneath whose land the oil lies - Bedouins in the Middle East, the Huaorani in Ecuador, Nigeria's Ijaw and Ogoni, the Acehnese of Indonesia - the partnership between oil transnationals and repressive regimes has been ruinous, destroying subsistence cultures while offering little in return. The Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, hanged in 1995 for leading protests against such destruction, dubbed the process "genocide by environmental means."

Oil and related extractive industries have arguably done more to tarnish America's image abroad than any other commercial pursuit. By scaling back our reliance on foreign oil we could reduce a major cause of anti-American feeling while simultaneously decreasing our vulnerability to oil embargoes and price spikes.

Long before the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush adopted the slogan, "National security depends on energy security." How can America best come closer to energy self-sufficiency? To date, the Bush administration has changed our relationship to fossil fuels primarily by deregulating and decentralizing controls, while advocating increased drilling. Interior Secretary Gale Norton supports opening up many wilderness study areas, national monuments and roadless national forests for oil and gas leases.

But we will never be able to drill our way out of even our short-term energy problems, much less our long-term ones. America consumes 25 percent of the world's oil while possessing less than 4 percent of global oil reserves. Even opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling would provide a mere 140 days' worth of fuel. Such modest new supplies would take an estimated seven years to reach the consumer and would be more costly than imported oil.

We have to be more inventive about easing our reliance on all oil, foreign and domestic. A good start would be to reverse the administration's rollbacks in financing research into fuel efficiency and renewable, clean energy sources. We need to build on the encouraging advances in developing wind and wave power, biomass research, transport fuels based on renewable oilseed crops, and photovoltaic modules that can convert even diffuse light into electricity. Some of the most promising progress has been in energy efficiency: household appliances that require half the energy they did a decade ago; cars that can get 70 miles per gallon.

Changing public attitudes is going to be an even steeper challenge. Yet is it too much to hope that the S.U.V. will come to be viewed as an unpatriotic relic of the 90's, when America's dependence on foreign oil spiked by over 40 percent? Is it unreasonable to believe that, with commitments from Detroit and government, hybrid cars could become not just more sophisticated but sexier, narrowing the gap between fashion and conscience while saving us money at the pump? Could hybrids and fuel- efficient vehicles emerge as the cars of choice for a more patriotic and worldly America?

Redesigning hybrids is one thing; the business of remodeling American consumer desire is an undertaking altogether more ambitious. But we do have precedents: remember the beloved Oldsmobile 88's and Ford LTD's that lost their appeal after the 1973 Arab oil embargo? With a combination of pocketbook incentives, government stimulus and industry inventiveness, perhaps we could start uncoupling America's passion for the automobile from our dangerous and doomed appetite for oil. The most decisive war we can wage on behalf of national security and America's global image is the war against our own oil gluttony.


Rob Nixon teaches English and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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