A Tribute to Oil

At the turn of the 20th Century, most transportation in America’s cities was provided by one of the filthiest, most inefficient power sources known to man – animals. Their maintenance required vast tracks of farmland devoted to growing their food.  Their waste pasted streets with stinking, disease-causing layers of manure.  The runoff from those roadways killed streams and bred epidemics.  And their disposal was a burdensome problem.

Along came the automobile powered by gasoline and within decades cities were cleaner than they had ever been and the cost of transportation had plummeted.  Oil fueled a revolution in productivity more powerful than anything that had ever come before.  It made America rich.  Thank God for oil.

With a modern engine and catalytic converter, automotive exhaust is almost exclusively CO & CO2.  Though either would kill you in an enclosed space, neither are toxic (insert Global Warming caveat here).  Crude oil is biodegradable.  Oil spilled on the ground or in the ocean is broken down by microorganisms.  It’s as natural as hemp.

There has never been a source of mass energy that does not create some form of environmental hazards or pollution.  Even solar or wind, when they are deployed on a significant scale, will each require environmental compromises.  Wind generation is an eyesore, creates noise, and poses serious threats to wildlife.  In fact, the industry is already deploying the typical corporate denial engines to cut off these eventual objections.

Solar generation, like batteries, requires a pollution-heavy manufacturing process and delivers a product that requires special treatment in disposal.  It is water-intensive and consumes large plots of land, making them unsuitable for many of the animals that once lived there.

Similar problems confront wave energy, algae, and bio-diesel.  Don’t get me started on ethanol.  And leaving aside energy for a moment, you’re never going to use wind farms as a source for plastics, lubricants, and fertilizers.  Oil is remarkable stuff and our need for it isn’t going away.

With a nod to nuclear energy, which burns very clean but produces a nightmarish waste, oil is the cheapest, cleanest, most efficient source of energy mankind has ever developed.  It is relatively easy to obtain, simple to transport, and can be transformed into an almost endless variety of useful things. Supply concerns have always been with us, but new reserves and new methods to exploit them are invented all the time.

A huge part of the improvement in basic living standards that all humans have experienced over the past century can be attributed to oil and gas, our greatest discovery.

And it is time to move on.

Extreme dependence on any one commodity to deliver such a critical function will cause dangerous problems.  Period.  If we switched our entire power generation model to wind, we would soon be discussing the corrupting power of Big Wind and the influence of wind-related special interests on Senators from major wind-generating states.  Not to mention those fat-cat foreign wind tycoons in [insert repugnant country here].

There is no single magic cure for our energy challenges.  This is one subject that McCain got dead-right in his Presidential campaign.  America needs to break the stranglehold of oil on our culture by more fully developing all of our energy production options, from nuclear to solar.

We pay a massive invisible price for our dependence on this one, fantastic commodity.  If we managed to trim our consumption of oil by as little as 15%, the effect on prices, and the impact on our foreign policy would be far out of proportion to that sacrifice.  Beyond a critical threshold, a little would go a long way.

But there is no point trying to get there by pretending that there is something inherently evil about oil.  If we do, then we are just preparing ourselves to replace one villain with another.

The keys to developing better energy sources are avoiding external costs (don’t pretend source X has no environmental costs – incorporate them into the price), freeing the market to choose solutions, and maintaining diversity of supply.  Efforts in the meantime to account for the shadow costs of oil dependence and support for R&D can help us develop new sources that will make the country more prosperous and secure.

In the meantime, hat’s off to that wonderful black gold.

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