Two surreal things happened within the span of two days. In his televised address, President Obama again sternly warned that the nation must break its dependency on oil. He again called on Congress to pass an energy bill that would vastly expand our hunt for and use of alternative and renewable energy sources. The next day he sternly tongue lashed BP executives about the monumental damage of their spill, and demanded they cough up billions to pay the damage costs. They agreed. The tough talk generally about breaking America's oil addiction publicly played well, and BP paying the damage freight played even better. But while the president made his umpteenth pitch to break the oil addiction, a slew of Gulf Coast congresspersons and senators loudly called for Obama to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling. There's some evidence that the president may listen to their plea.
Before the BP spill, Obama had approved an expansion in offshore drilling. After the BP spill, he quickly reversed gears. However, he also left the door for a resumption of drilling when he indicated that he would wait and see what his oil spill commission came up with about the spill.
The love-loathe relation that politicians have with Big Oil has been the all too familiar pattern. The very moment that House committee leaders very publicly saber rattled BP's hapless CEO Tony Hayward, GOP Senate leaders very quietly moved to kill off any effort to dump the farcically low $75 million liability cap on damages Big Oil would have to shell out, for well, a Gulf spill. The Orwellian reason for not tampering with the cap is that it would push all but the biggest oil giants out of the business of oil exploration and drilling since smaller companies would be too scared to drill if they knew they would have to pony up tens of millions for a mishap. Big or little, the "drill, baby drill" crowd had to be protected at all cost.
The operative word is always cost. The much touted alternative energy sources -- wind, solar, hydrogen and ethanol -- are too expensive, too time consuming, and often not cost effective. Even if Congress were willing to do what it publicly claims it wants to do and push hard to develop these alternative sources, it won't pay what it will cost. The climate and energy legislation pushed by Obama as it now stands increases funding for R&D and demonstration of alternative sources by a paltry $2 to $4 billion. That's a fraction of the $25 to $30 billion per year experts agree it takes to achieve the technological breakthroughs needed to make clean energy cheap and scalable. Congress has further tilted the playing field against all-out production and use of all alternative energy sources by taxing it. There is no tax on foreign oil imports.
It still comes back to supply and demand. In 2008, the United States consumed 23 percent of the world's petroleum, and nearly 60 percent of this was imported. But the country holds less than two percent of the world's oil reserves. About 40 percent of the imports came from Canada, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, and that figure continues to climb. The naked fact is that the US is running out of oil. The amount of oil in proven U.S. reserves, reserves that the United States is fairly certain it can extract oil from in the future, plunged nearly 20 billion barrels in the last thirty years. This means even if the country drilled and produced all the oil reserves it had, they'd be depleted in four years.
Oil is still by any standard relatively cheap. As painful as it is to swallow, for the forseeable future, anyway, sustainable. The country consumes more than seven billion barrels of oil per year. Federal estimates are that the nation's outer continental shelf could hold more than 80 billion barrels of crude. That includes more than 10 billion barrels off California alone. If the US did not get another drop of oil from the world's land suppliers, and relied solely on the supply it got from California offshore drilling, it would fill the country's energy need for twelve years. The near 100 billion of oil deposits is just in or near US coastal waters. A 2008 International Energy Agency report estimates that reachable conventional oil located in water more than a quarter-mile deep world-wide is between 160 and 300 billion barrels, with more than two-thirds of that in Brazil, Angola, Nigeria and, of course, the United States.
The BP spill ratcheted up the much-needed war of words from President Obama and Congress about the peril of America's incessant oil addiction, and the urgency of breaking it. Words are one thing, but the terrifying reality is that to break the oil addiction, as with any other addiction, it takes a strong will and the means to do it. So far, neither one is there.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press).
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