This time last year, media outlets all over the world were focused on the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. After one year since the disaster, how far along have we come in energy policy? Gas is around $4 a gallon and rising. Are we serious about change? From what I can tell, we are not.
Between April and August, over 200 million gallons of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico. To put this into context, the Attleboro YMCA's Sweet pool, which I worked at for seven years, contains just over 100,000 gallons of water. Put another way: Attleboro is 28.3 sq miles and Massachusetts is 27,336 square miles. The oil spill ranged between 2,500 and 68,000 square miles, depending on how you define "affected area." This was the largest "accidental" oil spill in history. And while the Gulf cleanup effort is winding down, there is still an enormous amount of oil trapped in the marshlands off the coast in Louisiana; this is a concern to marine biologists and fishermen alike.
We are addicted to oil. We love our cars since they provide us with a freedom of mobility. But we can be mobile without the heavy baggage. Our dependence on high levels of foreign oil to fuel our automobiles is not a problem of technology. In 2008, there were two car types produced in the USA that got more than 40 mpg - a Toyota and a Honda. In Europe, there were 126 cars that got more than 40 mpg. You might say that is Europe and they like small wimpy European cars, but of those 126 cars, 86 were subsidiaries of U.S.-owned auto companies. The technology is there; the will to change is not.
Our oil consumption makes OPEC countries rich at our peril. Not only do we have a federal budget deficit, we have a serious trade deficit. The trade deficit inflates every time the cost of oil goes up. Over the last 40 years, there has been a real ugly relationship between our trade deficit, oil imports and the cost of a gallon of gasoline.
Change is slow to non-existent, in part because of lobbying. The oil and gas lobby spent $52 million in 2000 but $147 million in 2010. This amounts to nearly $1 billion over the course of that decade. When you spend that much, you can expect you are getting something for it. But if the oil and gas industry are buying influence in Washington, what are the rest of us getting? We are getting externalities.
An externality is a fancy term economists use to describe things that have second-order effects and hidden costs, that we don't directly pay for. The cost we are charged for fuel only accounts for what it costs to get it to the gas station and speculative future price increases. However, what we are not paying for at the pump is the damage done to and permanent loss in the environment, or the cost to clean up the environment, or the medical care associated with pollution's effects on health, or the cost of a military presence in the Middle East to keep gas at the pump inexpensive. Oil dependence also creates a trade deficit which is not paid for at the pump. These are externalities, they are bad, and we'll have to literally pay for them sooner or later.
Have you ever held a chunk of coal? It's filthy. But if you trust advertising, you can go ahead and believe in clean coal. For the rest of us who don't believe everything we see on TV, there is not such thing as "clean" coal. By no stretch of the imagination can one claim that burning fossil fuel leaves the environment clean; fossil fuels dirty the environment. This isn't political, it is a fact. Politics enters when we try to exaggerate or minimize the effects of fossil fuels.
Every president since Nixon has said we need to get off our dependence on foreign oil. Energy independence and a clean environment is not a Republican or a Democrat cause. You don't need to be liberal to be for clean, or against clean if you are a conservative. Fishermen and hunters depend on a clean environment, as do children and wildlife.
We need to change our priorities and invest in and embrace an alternative energy industry, which would be good for domestic job creation and our export technologies. In doing so we could reduce our dependence on oil, especially imported oil, and improve our economy. If we don't, here is an obvious outcome: we are going to do more damage to the environment and our health, increase our trade deficit, and support hostile OPEC economies while slowly but surely doing damage to our own economy.
PAUL HEROUX of Attleboro can be reached at Paul_Heroux@hks11.harvard.edu.