When George Bush declared that the United States is addicted to oil, it may have been the most insightful moment of his presidency. It is a cruel but apt analogy, and that’s why the big push for more domestic oil production is so disturbing.
John McCain has created the “Drill Here, Drill Now” mantra, as though he wants to sink a well wherever he’s standing at the moment. When vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin gave her coming-out address at the Republican National Convention, the crowd started changing “Drill, Baby, Drill.” McCain’s selection of Palin was a concession to conservatives in many ways, including those who think climate change is liberal mythology and fossil energy is the fuel of the future.
But what would life be like for an America still addicted to oil?
The nature of addiction is that the drug is in control. It trumps morality, judgment, and common sense. Under its influence, good people commit crimes to get their next fix. If they exhaust one vein, they search for another. And another. Eventually, they hit bottom. When they do, they face a stark choice: withdraw or die.
So it is with our addiction to oil. Our dependence has compromised our morality, our security, our economy. We sacrifice our sons and daughters to maintain our supply. We occupy Islamic holy lands and give terrorists a recruiting tool. We are forced to stand by as despots, aggrandized by their oil supplies, gain power.
After sponsoring a series of expert meetings on the global energy situation two years ago, the Aspen Institute put it this way [PDF]:
Today, the dependence of the U.S. and its allies on foreign sources of oil and gas continues to limit their freedom of action and puts them in the awkward position of trying to balance the desire for energy security against other foreign policy goals. Western Europe and Ukraine need Russian gas. Italy buys energy from Libya and Algeria. India wants a gas pipeline from Iran. Japan and Korea are heavily dependent on the Middle East. And U.S. friends in Latin America are being pressured by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. China’s growing relationships with Iran, Sudan and Venezuela are examples.
Alliances of convenience between buyers and sellers can evolve into groups that are hostile to international norms and could influence international politics — e.g., U.N. Security Council votes on totally unrelated issues. Many countries that are rich in energy resources are prone to corruption, are autocratic, and repress political dissent in the name of stability. If the U.S. associates with these countries to obtain energy supplies, it risks alienating the oppressed population and undermining its credibility on other foreign policy goals, such as the promotion of democracy and human rights. If it distances itself, the governments make decisions that are costly to U.S. interests.
Iran has used its throw-weight as OPEC’s second-largest oil producer to gain leverage for building a nuclear capability. The CIA reports that with the price of petroleum climbing in recent years, Iran has amassed $70 billion in foreign exchange reserves. Iran not only sits on big oil deposits, but it also sits along the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most strategically important waterways on the planet because 20 percent of the world’s oil supply is shipped through it. Sabotage, military action, or terrorism could cause a disruption of oil shipments sufficient to trigger a devastating increase in the price of oil.
Well before its invasion of Georgia, Russia demonstrated that it will use its rich oil and gas supplies to try to become a superpower again. Writing in Time magazine early last year, Harvard History Prof. Niall Ferguson noted that Vladimir Putin feels free to be more critical of U.S. policy and to assert Russian power because the country sits on one-quarter of the world’s proven natural gas reserves and 6 percent of the world’s oil reserves. Now, Russia’s invasion of Georgia is threatening America’s strategy to create reduce our dependence on Gulf oil with pipelines from oilfields in Central Asia.
It’s widely acknowledged that some portion of every dollar we Americans pay at the pump goes to nations that support terrorist organizations. We are tithing for Bin Laden. As the Aspen Institute’s 2006 report notes [PDF]:
Inevitably, some of the petrodollars flowing to governments in the Middle East make their way into the hands of radical Islamist groups such as al Qaeda, leading to the feeling that the U.S. and its allies are ‘paying for both sides’ of the war against these groups. Other oil and gas revenues fund other undesirable actions … Countries that have energy but believe they need more weapons and countries that have weapons but not enough energy have business to discuss.
America’s questionable suppliers of petroleum aren’t confined to the volatile Gulf. Our major suppliers include Venezuela, Nigeria, Algeria, and Angola. In Nigeria, armed rebel gangs have blown up oil pipelines, disabled pumping stations, and kidnapped foreign oil workers. According to Transparency International, a Berlin-based organization that evaluates corruption, Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s hostility to the U.S. is well known. The U.S. State Department warns Americans traveling to Algeria to be alert to recent terrorist attacks against foreigners — including bombings, false roadblocks, kidnappings, ambushes, and assassinations that “occur regularly” — and to “evaluate carefully the risk posed to their personal safety.” The U.S. Embassy in Algeria requires its personnel to live and work “under strict security restrictions.” In the past few years, Angola has been troubled by civil war and an insurgency.
The Emergency Response and Research Institute in Chicago, which monitors these things, cites internet messages to Al Qaeda cells to “hit oil interests in all regions which serve the United States, not just in the Middle East.”
“By every measure of petroleum security or vulnerability that we have examined, the United States is as vulnerable, and in most cases more so, than at the time of the 1973 Embargo,” researchers James Williams of WTRG Economics and A.F. Alhajji of Ohio Northern University concluded in 2003 [PDF], 30 years after an oil crisis that was supposed to be our wake-up call.
So, how do we end the oil addiction? Diversifying our suppliers doesn’t help. The U.S. did that after the oil shocks of the 1970s. As the Energy Futures Coalition explains [PDF]:
Unfortunately, diversifying the sources of U.S. oil supply does not materially affect the economic risks of dependence. Because oil is a global commodity, freely traded, the price of oil is determined on the world market. It responds to the forces of supply and demand and to political events, no matter where they occur. Even if the U.S. shifted all of its oil imports to relatively safe sources, such as Canada and Mexico, it would not be protected from a price shock — whether caused by politics, war or terrorism. The only way to reduce the risks associated with oil is to reduce the demand for it — in other words, to increase the efficiency of oil consumption and increase the use of alternative fuels. (Emphasis mine.)
Finding new forms of the drug doesn’t help either. Oil shale and tar sands are the same drug in new and even dirtier forms. Drilling offshore doesn’t help; it simply means we’re getting drug closer to home. We’re still addicted, still vulnerable to world markets we don’t control, still setting ourselves up for more oil wars, and still heading toward bottom.
The key question of national energy policy — and presidential leadership — is how far we’ll let things deteriorate before we accept that we need to withdraw completely from the drug — not just the oil drug, but the carbon drug overall. The suppliers, domestic and foreign, won’t like losing a customer. Which president and members of Congress will stand up to their intimidation?
I’m an independent with no partisan ax to grind. But a look at the presidential candidates’ positions shows this:
- Sen. Obama proposes that we cut our oil consumption enough to offset our imports from the Middle East and Venezuela in 10 years. He supports a limited increase in domestic production.
- Sen. McCain has no specific target for reducing our dependence on foreign oil and appears to support wide-open domestic production.
Which position better protects our national security, economic security, and energy security? Which position will accommodate a foreign policy that best represents America’s values and is least likely to lead to war? You decide.