Our dependence on (snake) oil

As is being said oftener and oftener, we should be much more worried about the corruption of language than the corruption of senators.

As the gentleman from Arizona said at the end of last week:

My friends, I will have an energy policy that we will be talking about, which will eliminate our dependence on oil from the Middle East that will – that will then prevent us – that will prevent us from having ever to send our young men and women into conflict again in the Middle East.

The salutation he starts off with just seems more than a little smarmy, probably because I don’t believe what follows it, and he’s willing to allow these in such a direct proximity that it sounds like something he’s been told will ‘work’. But it reeks, and reminds me of something recent.

Oh yeah. A trickster. Someone who is trying to pull something over on someone. It’s the condition of false, deeply contemptuous bonhomie. Even if you were among friends, would you address them as such? And if you weren’t actually among friends, then… . Again, the old stand-by: Ignorant, or thinks you are.

But the whole concept of oil independence brings up a host of prickly issues that need to be addressed. The answer to the question of whether it can be accomplished would be revelatory in several directions, if we go about answering it honestly.

The prevailing opinion among (honest) policy experts is that we will not be able to completely eliminate our dependence on Middle East oil. Not only would it be impossible to do at our present consumption rates, but as oil production decreases in the rest of the world, our reliance on oil from the Middle East is likely to increase in the future. So, there’s that, and the question then swerves toward how much of this we might begin to displace with alternative sources. No one seems to think we can or should focus on decreasing consumption.

But, alternatives are where our desire for energy security and the need to reduce greenhouse gases to mitigate global warming converge. The U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 provides a new annual production goal of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. Fourteen years. Currently we produce about 6 billion gallons per year, mostly from corn ethanol, which is draining the aquifer beneath the American Midwest and poisoning the Gulf of Mexico with huge hypoxia zones. Those are just two of the environmental implications of producing that much biofuel. So where did those numbers come from? What were they thinking?

They were thinking about reducing our dependence on foreign oil. But while biofuels won’t do that, they may do something else. The lack of a passenger rail system is really biting us on the ass here, and that’s really what this comes down to. We can and will displace an increasing proportion of our imported transportation fuel with innovative new, non-corn feedstock biofuels. But there’s an enormous gap between there and here. There is no getting around the fact that we’ve got to reduce consumption AND pour significant, war-fighting-type money into renewable energy research. Where does that money come from?

I know it’s counterintuitive-y and all but instead of a temporary gas tax holiday, how about hiking the gas tax permanently? Make ourselves feel the pinch of the very dependence we’re talking about, nudge ourselves to come up with our own alternatives to driving so much, even if it’s just a reason to be more strategic and less wasteful. Introduce a calculus to it, empower the public to play a role instead of feeling helplessly at the mercy of expensive gas. Introduce some measures that drive down consumption. My friends, why can’t we talk about this?

What’s that bumper sticker – control your fate or someone else will?

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