Wake-up call is here: It's time to end reliance on oil

Lita Oppegard

There is little doubt that the current turmoil in the oil-producing world is talking to us on many fronts while pointing in one direction. Politically, economically and environmentally, we have reasons to act soon on what we've been saying for decades -- it's time to end the tyranny of oil dependency.

The 20th century was a time of burgeoning oil business and it was a grand party. Now it's the 21st century and the wake-up call is here. Benzene-fouled air, oil spills fouling our oceans and greenhouse gases heating up our planet at an unprecedented rate are calling for cleaner technologies to fuel our communities and cars. It is fitting that we embrace what is good for our planet beyond what is good for oil companies and their entrenched pursuit of the past.

Once upon a time we paid little attention to greenhouse gases and their effects on climate. Now we can't. Climate change is no longer just the result of "natural cycles." The scientific community points to human activity as a major contributor. Getting away from oil will help lower greenhouse gas emissions, breathe new life into our worn-out economy and provide a foundation for safeguarding our foreign relations.

Our current oil addiction requires a high defense budget as we compete with China and India for foreign oil -- a huge incentive for foreign dictatorships sitting on oil to maintain a volatile production economy rife with human rights abuses. We're seeing what happens when human rights abuses lead to unrest, radicalism and revolution.

It's convenient to think we've got all the time in the world to change course. We've listened to the exhortations of every president since Nixon; now it's apparent that we needed to change decades ago. A cap-and-trade policy is touted as the best we can do to minimize the negative effects of continued oil production. A cap-and-trade policy puts a cap on total greenhouse gas emissions but permits to emit up to that cap can be traded among companies. The owner of the permits may emit -- indefinitely -- as long as the "cap" is not violated. This standard, applied to X number of companies, becomes problematic when the number of companies using these permits doubles over a generation. Where are the incentives to develop clean technologies? To break the oil addiction? To care for our planet? There are none. Nothing really changes. Cutting 3 inches off one end of a blanket and sewing it on the other end doesn't make it longer.

A viable alternative to cap-and-trade is a carbon tax-and-dividend system. Citizens Climate Lobby has laid out a convincing argument for attaching a carbon fee to sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Over time the tax increases. If companies have to pay to pollute, they have an incentive to do something else. If companies choose not to do something else, they can continue relying exclusively on carbon-based fuels for their profits (without caps) and paying to do so. This will increase the cost of carbon fuels, making cleaner alternatives competitive. Those on the buying end of this market will naturally look to the less expensive sources of fuel/energy. Companies dedicating themselves to clean energy production will prosper, creating higher-paying jobs to meet the new demand.

Making the tax "revenue neutral" would mean that for every dollar raised by a tax, an equivalent dollar is returned to consumers -- equally. Though fuel costs for the poor eat up a greater chunk of their income, they spend less on fuel than the wealthiest 20 percent of the population. This means the equal dividend disbursement would rebate more money to the poor than they paid out in a tax.

It's worthy of discussion and action. A society focused on sound solutions and workable incentives can and will break the chains of what no longer works. It's about adapting to the demands that nature and society place on us. We know from a historical perspective what happens when we don't.

Lita Oppegard is a member of the Citizens Climate Lobby. She lives in Eagle River.