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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2006
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Sierra Magazine
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Ways & Means: Fuel Folly
We're better off without cheap gas
By Carl Pope

Carl PopeEvery civilization has its blind spots--ideas so profoundly embedded in the culture that they are rarely even debated, but so fundamentally flawed that they can steer a whole society onto the rocks.

Such governing follies are the theme of Jared Diamond's most recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. He shows how they often spring from outdated notions of past abundance. The idea that Easter Island had lots of trees, for example, persisted until they were all cut down. Greenland once had enough grass to support cattle, so Viking settlers stubbornly stuck with pasturage even when the Little Ice Age drastically cooled the climate.

Our own folly is cheap fuel. The United States once had large oil reserves, and they made us rich and powerful. Ergo, cheap fuel--oil, coal, nuclear, or whatever--is seen as being key to our continued prosperity and future security. This gusher mentality deforms our society and economy. It leads the United States to sabotage international efforts to combat global warming, tolerate a huge trade deficit that has destroyed millions of manufacturing jobs, and keep military bases in the Middle East, where they serve as rallying points for terrorists. And it's why the U.S. auto industry continues to promote size and performance over safety and efficiency.

"Help the oil industry," argues the cheap-fuel lobby, "and the price will go down." So Congress grants enormous subsidies to wealthy oil companies, which turn our wild places into industrial zones, foul our air and water, and poison our communities. Others say that the oil industry (or the OPEC cartel) is price-gouging. "Stop profiteering and cheap energy will return" is their mantra.

Both sides are wrong: Cheap oil is over. U.S. oil production peaked in 1971, and our proven reserves have declined by 20 percent since 1990. Worldwide, petroleum geologists say that as soon as 2010 we may reach the moment called "peak oil," when production tops off and begins its inexorable decline. Meanwhile, global demand is expected to increase by 50 percent in the next 20 years, and it doesn't take T. Boone Pickens to understand that shrinking production matched with growing demand is going to mean higher prices. And as oil becomes more expensive, so too will its carbon competitors, coal and natural gas.

But our energy problem has less to do with price than with waste and inefficiency. Large amounts of petroleum are lost in drilling, transportation, and refining. Of every gallon that reaches the gas pump, only a few spoonfuls are needed to move the passenger's body--the rest is used to move the weight and bulk of the car itself. Better engineering could reduce this waste by half; smaller and lighter vehicles could lower fuel needs to a quarter of our present, profligate levels. If cars got 100 miles per gallon--as they could--who would care about paying $5 a gallon at the pump?

Similarly, of every pound of coal torn from the mountaintops of Appalachia, more than eleven ounces' worth of electricity is lost at the power plant. Further losses occur in the transmission and distribution systems, and in the wasted heat from incandescent bulbs. Less than two ounces provide the actual lumens of light. If we got three times as many lumens per ton of coal mined—as we could—electricity bills would plummet even if coal prices soared.

But our governing folly paralyzes us, and we continue to focus on price instead of waste and inefficiency. Last year, Congress threw billions of dollars in new subsidies at the oil industry, but gas still rose to $3 a gallon. Airlines went bankrupt. Homeowners chose between paying for heat and buying food. And the Bush administration and congressional leadership very nearly succeeded in opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, even though its reserves would represent only a drop in our oil bucket.

Polls of average Americans show that most favor shifting toward renewables and efficiency and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear. So do the grassroots leaders and members of the Sierra Club. That's why the Club is taking on one of the biggest challenges in its 114-year history: to make smart energy solutions the 21st-century replacement for cheap oil. By expanding renewable sources, promoting energy efficiency, and breaking the stranglehold of carbon, our society can choose success over failure.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.

Photo by Lori Eanes; used with permission.

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