Should business-section newspaper articles about tobacco companies ritually include statements such as, “The company’s profits and future existence, of course, wholly depend on its ability to externalize the health effects of its products”? Probably not. The newspaper article is a genre narrowly focused on one item — perhaps that’s why newspaper articles are sometimes called “items.”

So reader consciousness that tobacco companies profit by creating work for the healthcare industry must come from elsewhere, like the health section, or the Ad Council.

For the last few days, I have been chewing over this short Financial Times article about the global economic quandary created by high oil prices. The item is informative. The rub is that oil-producing nations tend to save money rather than invest it. When oil-consuming nations send their petrodollars abroad, the capital essentially disappears from the market, and global demand falls, potentially slowing the world economy. The solution to this problem — massive investment — creates another one: How should producers invest money from super-high oil prices? That’s interesting. That’s not what drives me nuts.

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This is what drives me nuts: To illustrate just how expensive oil is, the writer begins with this lede: “At today’s prices the value of oil in the ground exceeds the combined value of all the world’s equity and debt markets.”

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In fairness, the FT is not expecting anyone to rip this statement from context and unpack it. But here goes. Energy reporters, energy economists, energy-industry players — really anybody with the word energy in their job description — may be looking backward rather than forward. We think about oil as energy, the heart of the energy industry, but to get slightly technical, it’s not energy. Oil is matter. And when we burn it, this matter releases the energy it stores. Oil’s combustion products are matter. Hydrocarbons reconfigure themselves into carbon dioxide and water and pollutants. And this matter, famously, joins the atmosphere and retains thermal energy trying to radiate out from the planet of the apes.

So at this stage of the game, to even insinuate that all of the oil in the ground has value as something useful, or that it is just “energy” rather than matter in destructive quantities, is at least as misleading as talking about the macroeconomic value (or cost) of tobacco companies without taking into account tobacco’s cancer and heart-disease impacts. Certainly it’s a gob-smacking factoid that the hypothetical value of oil reserves, at current prices and estimates, matches that of all equity and debt markets. But not as gob-smacking as the implications of burning all that oil and continuing to externalize the costs to future generations.

Man, that drives me nuts!

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