What does the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have to do with global warming? A great deal, because a large fraction of our carbon dioxide emissions comes from our addiction to gasoline and this addiction to gasoline panics us into obtaining oil all over the globe, no matter the risk to the environment or damage to mother earth.
Our panic comes from an understanding that oil will soon run out; we need to find more, quickly. Most of the oil fields on earth are running dry; indeed, the time of "Peak Oil" is drawing closer and closer, possibly as soon as 2015. A dire result of this rush to find and produce more oil for our vehicles is the present situation in the Gulf of Mexico.
Another reason for the rush to drill is our hatred of high gasoline prices. We do not want an oil shortage whether real or contrived to raise our prices. Now our gasoline prices are actually cheap. Bottled water and Coca Cola are more expensive. In fact, gasoline is artificially cheap in the United States because we do not pay at the pump the price of our military in the Mid-East protecting the big oil producers and their giant oil fields. The price of gasoline also does not adequately pay for the enormous economic costs that will accrue from the clean-up of the Gulf region and to the losses of fish and other wildlife due to the BP oil spill.
The BP oil spill has links to politics, Republicans versus Democrats. It has links to national security, environmental policy, and national and state economics. Technological prowess in deep drilling plays a role as does a lack of technology in drilling safety and oil cleanup. This complexity makes it difficult to place blame on one target only, although British Petroleum will pay the clean-up costs in the Gulf of Mexico just as Exxon paid the costs for the Valdez cleanup.
As I write this column, the extent of the damage to the Gulf of Mexico and its shorelines is unknown. We do not even know the rate that oil has been pouring into the water let alone how much total oil will leak before the well is finally capped. (As I finish this column it appears that the leak has been stopped.) I will consider how the oil spill will likely affect our global warming mitigation strategy and timing. I will discuss the issue of U.S. oil independence, since both politicians and the media are constantly declaring "drill, baby drill" and this is certainly an issue with regard to global warming and damage to our coastal ecosystems.
Clearly, we must understand the cause of the Gulf oil spill, its ecological effects, and then restore the affected Gulf Coast region as best we can. As I watch and read media reports, I find that the BP oil spill has certainly activated the government and its citizens. However, we still cannot come to grips with a much more dangerous, far-reaching pollutant that is changing the fundamental chemistry of our entire planet: carbon dioxide.
Why the difference in concern? Is it as simple as out of sight, out of mind? We can see oil discoloring the ocean, blackening coastlines and covering wildlife, but carbon dioxide is colorless, tasteless, and odorless. We do not see it, smell it, or taste it, and there are no video or sound bites, so it is easy to deny. The media do not stream figures every day about carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. But CO2 has been spewing steadily and increasingly into our planet's atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution from power plants, factories, buildings, cars, trucks, trains, ships, airplanes, and our homes.
We see and photograph the black and orange trails of oil soiling Gulf waters and coastlines. If carbon dioxide were black, we could actually see our atmosphere darkening with carbon dioxide, creating a heat-trapping blanket that is raising global air and ocean temperatures and threatening to dramatically rearrange our climate. Would we care more if we could see the higher concentrations of carbon dioxide being absorbed into our oceans, making seawater more acidic, endangering coral reefs and marine life and threatening to fundamentally disrupt ocean ecosystems and food webs?
Perhaps we ignore carbon dioxide because it's hard for us to think long-term. The consequences of oil spills are immediate; the causes and effects are obvious. Not so with carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion; its consequences are incremental, insidious, and irreversible for centuries or even a millennium.
People do not easily understand how a small sea level rise can result in bigger storm surges and coastal damage, or how slight changes in ocean temperatures can change global rainfall patterns, leading to droughts and floods with catastrophic economic and societal consequences. Even if we acknowledge the problem, there is still the hurdle of doing something about it.
The Gulf of Mexico spill is a reminder that oil doesn't come cheap. We will pay an enormous price in cleanup costs, economic losses, and environmental and social damage. We do not factor in those costs when we fill our gas tanks. And we do not make the connection that gasoline, once burned, turns into carbon dioxide, whose effects on our global environment will dwarf the catastrophe happening in the Gulf.
Few people imagined a catastrophe like this oil platform blowout on such a scale, but we now see it's possible and we are suffering the consequences. Our seemingly invulnerable planet is fragile, too. We ignore that at our peril.
U. S. oil production peaked in 1970 in accordance with M. King Hubbert's calculated prediction, but our demand and consumption has increased considerably since then so that now we import about 65% of our oil. Our national security is also at risk since one out of every five barrels of oil consumed in the U.S. comes from countries that are 'dangerous or unstable' according to the State Department. Will we be able to lower our consumption and increase our production to make us self sufficient in oil? Not easily, not quickly, and not all likely are the answers. Even with more efficient cars and trucks, and more off-shore drilling to try to bolster our sagging production, time and the numbers are against us.
Offshore oil and natural gas is a significant source for our nation's energy supply. The approximately 43 million leased off-shore acres generally account for about 15 percent of America's domestic natural gas production and about 27 percent of America's domestic oil production. Our government's oversight and regulatory framework are supposed to ensure production and drilling are done in an environmentally responsible manner, and done safely.
The offshore areas of the United States are estimated to contain significant quantities of resources in yet-to-be-discovered fields as well. Estimates of oil and gas resources in undiscovered fields on the Outer Continental Shelf (2006, mean estimates) total 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of gas. These volumes represent about 60 percent of the oil and 40 percent of the natural gas resources estimated to be contained in remaining undiscovered fields in the United States. We consumed over 7-billion barrels of oil in 2007 so that as our economy and population expand those 86-billion barrels of undiscovered oil would probably be insufficient to last us even 10 years.
I believe the BP oil spill gives Obama a great opportunity to press for strong cap-and-trade or cap-and-dividend CO2-mitigation legislation. He is beginning to talk that way. Consider these excerpts from a recent Obama speech:
"We all know the price we pay as a country as a result of how we produce and use — and, yes, waste — energy today. We've been talking about it for decades — since the gas shortages of the 1970s. Our dependence on foreign oil endangers our security and our economy. Climate change poses a threat to our way of life — in fact, we're already beginning to see its profound and costly impact. And the spill in the Gulf, which is just heartbreaking, only underscores the necessity of seeking alternative fuel sources. We're not going to transition out of oil next year or 10 years from now. But think about it, part of what's happening in the Gulf is that oil companies are drilling a mile underwater before they hit ground, and then a mile below that before they hit oil."
"With the increased risks, the increased costs, it gives you a sense of where we're going. We're not going to be able to sustain this kind of fossil fuel use. This planet can't sustain it. Think about when China and India — where consumers there are starting to buy cars and use energy the way we are. So we've known that we've had to shift in a fundamental way, and that's true for all of us."
"We've got to remember that the risks our current dependence on oil holds for our environment and our coastal communities is not the only cost involved in our dependence on these fossil fuels. Around the world, from China to Germany, our competitors are waging a historic effort to lead in developing new energy technologies. There are factories like this being built in China, factories like this being built in Germany. Nobody is playing for second place. These countries recognize that the nation that leads the clean energy economy is likely to lead the global economy. And if we fail to recognize that same imperative, we risk falling behind. We risk falling behind."
"Fifteen years ago, the United States produced 40 percent of the world's solar panels — 40 percent. That was just 15 years ago. By 2008, our share had fallen to just over 5 percent. I don't know about you, but I'm not prepared to cede American leadership in this industry, because I'm not prepared to cede America's leadership in the global economy." "So that's why we've placed a big emphasis on clean energy. It's the right thing to do for our environment, it's the right thing to do for our national security, but it's also the right thing to do for our economy."
Even as Mr. Obama acknowledged that his efforts to improve regulation of offshore drilling had fallen short, he said that oil and gas from beneath the gulf, now about 30 percent of total domestic production, would be a part of the nation's energy supply for years to come. That is a dilemma we must face. "It has to be part of an overall energy strategy," Mr. Obama said. "I mean, we're still years off and some technological breakthroughs away from being able to operate on purely a clean-energy grid. During that time, we're going to be using oil. And to the extent that we're using oil, it makes sense for us to develop our oil and natural gas resources here in the United States and not simply rely on imports."
Of course, it only makes sense if we can get at the resources in an environmentally and ecologically safe manner. It would also make better sense if the consumer paid the full price that includes "externalities" such as environmental damages.