The first step in recovering from addiction is to tell the truth -- admit the addiction, acknowledge its consequences. Yet this is something we still seem unwilling to do with our global addiction to oil. Addicts would rather stay high than confront their addiction and commit to recovery.
The truth about oil is that while there are benefits -- jobs, energy, government revenue, etc. -- there are also enormous and unacceptable long-term risks, impacts and costs. And while government and industry extol the benefits of oil, they remain unwilling to tell the truth about its costs or aggressively pursue alternatives.
Some costs are obvious. Oil spills, such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez in Alaska and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, are easily recognizable disasters that attract widespread public condemnation. Many oil-producing areas of the world, such as the Niger Delta, the Caspian Sea, Siberia and the Amazon, have suffered decades of chronic oil spills.
But the true cost of oil goes far beyond the obvious damage from spills. More gradual, less visible costs of oil include ecological habitat degradation from exploration, production and pipelines; health costs from breathing polluted air; urban sprawl, traffic congestion and accidents in all major cities; seemingly endless wars fought to secure oil supplies, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars; and contributing to global terrorism.
Climate change from carbon emissions is incurring enormous present and future costs -- storm damage, drought, wildfires, lost agricultural productivity, infrastructure damage, climate refugees, disease, forest decline, marine ecosystem collapse, species extinction and lost ecosystem services -- already exceeding $1 trillion a year.
Wherever it is produced, there is a "socio-political toxicity" of oil -- a distortion of economic, social and political systems. Rather than the prosperity promised, oil discoveries around the world often become more curse than blessing, causing social dysfunction, assimilation of indigenous cultures, inflation, a decline in traditional exports, corruption, crime and unsustainable growth. Former Venezuelan oil minister Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, a founder of OPEC and once a true believer in the promise of oil, thought differently after he saw the corruption, greed, waste and debt it caused, and came to call oil "the devil's excrement."
The addictive power of oil was recognized as early as 1939, when Saudi Arabian King Abdul Aziz joked: "Do you know what they will find when they reach Mars? They will find Americans out there in the desert hunting for oil."
Today, world oil use continues to rise, last year hitting a historic high of more than 91 million barrels a day and still climbing. The world has pumped and burned about 1 trillion barrels of oil, and there may be another trillion barrels of recoverable "conventional" oil left, with several trillion barrels in unconventional reserves such as tar sands and oil shale formations.
But if we want anything resembling a sustainable future, we'll have to leave most of this oil buried right where it is, as the global climate cannot handle this much additional carbon. Yet the carbon pushers see billions of dollars just waiting to be dug up and are anxious to get to it regardless of the consequences. As with any addiction, when the easy stuff is gone and supplies tighten, addicts become desperate and willing to take more risk to secure the next fix, such as fracking and drilling in the Arctic and deep ocean basin.
George W. Bush stunned the world in his 2006 State of the Union speech, admitting that "we have a serious problem, America is addicted to oil," yet his administration did virtually nothing to wean us from our oil addiction. And despite candidate Obama's promise to end "the tyranny of oil," and that if he was elected, "the rise of the oceans will begin to slow," President Obama recently boasted: "We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some." Indeed, U.S. oil production has steadily increased throughout the Obama presidency. These facts betray Obama's recent rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline as another trivial political gesture intended to obscure his real record. The seas continue to rise, and the tyranny of oil continues.
Governments encourage fossil fuel addiction with annual subsidies of some $1.9 trillion, including $480 billion per year in direct subsidies around the world. These subsidies artificially depress prices and encourage overconsumption; reduce government spending on health care, education and social services; and keep alternative energy "uncompetitive." One 1998 study estimates that for every gallon of gasoline we buy at the pump, we are actually paying as much as $14 a gallon in additional "hidden" costs. Yet, we continue to ignore these hidden costs, paying some indirectly through income taxes and deferring most to future generations. We are tricking ourselves into using "cheap and easy" oil as fast as we can pump it out of the ground.
In oil-producing regions of the world -- including the U.S. and the states of Alaska, Louisiana, Texas and North Dakota -- governments are "captured" and controlled by oil interests ensuring policies to limit regulation, lower taxation and favor production and demand for oil over development of low-carbon alternatives. In Alaska, 40 years of oil has corrupted most elements of our society, even the state university. The 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling allows oil companies and others to pour unlimited funds into oil-friendly candidates and issues, without public disclosure. The media is awash in ads keeping us hooked on the stuff. And millions have been spent on a strategic disinformation campaign to deceive the public about the real costs of oil. Clearly, the drug pushers are running the show.
Perhaps the most pernicious cost of oil is that it has fueled a dangerous, unsustainable expansion of the ecological footprint of human civilization. With access to artificially "cheap and easy" oil over the past century, human population has quadrupled and resource consumption has increased many times more, now significantly exceeding Earth's carrying capacity. Without access to fossil carbon, humanity almost certainly would have evolved on a more sustainable trajectory. But by not accounting for its true cost, oil has allowed us to dig ourselves deeper into an unsustainable hole. The environmental debt we are accruing is far larger and more consequential than our national financial debt.
It's high time we kicked the habit, with better regulation and full costing of carbon. The full "social cost of carbon" has been estimated at $50 to $100 per ton of CO2, and with global emissions now exceeding 32 billion tons per year this amounts to $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion annually. When we account for these very real costs, sustainable alternatives become competitive and we make more rational choices.
Although U.S. oil consumption declined slightly during the recent recession, it is now increasing once again due to artificially depressed prices. Government needs to correct this by eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies, reducing emissions through regulation (e.g. the Clean Power Plan), instituting a carbon tax to capture the long-term cost of carbon, and applying the former subsidies and carbon tax revenues to low-carbon energy alternatives (including nuclear fusion research and development).
Sheikh Zaki Yamani, a former Saudi Arabian oil minister, once famously said, "The stone age did not end for lack of stones, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil."
The sooner we get to the far side of our troubled oil addiction, the better chance we have at a sustainable future. Then, like most recovering addicts, we will wonder why we didn't get clean sooner.
Rick Steiner is a conservation biologist in Anchorage, and advises governments and NGOs on oil and environment issues. He was a professor with the University of Alaska from 1980 to 2010, based in Kotzebue, Cordova and Anchorage.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.