I once met a woman on a Florida beach who shared with me her disgust at her son’s latest infatuation: Jet skiing. Jet skis are so loud and obnoxious, she groused, that Germany had actually banned them.
I told her I had no problem with jet skis being legal in the U.S. -- so long as it was legal for me to shoot at the drivers. She didn’t laugh.
I thought of my joke (which, by the way, nobody else found funny) when I realized something similar was unfolding as part of our national energy debate. Except, this time, it’s sort of in reverse. And it’s not funny, not even by my morbid standards.
An oil rig blows up. Eleven men die. But their deaths are overshadowed by the relentless degradation of the Gulf of Mexico. The blight spreads to the shore in four states, and we are powerless to stop it. Yet, even before we learn what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon rig, residents and politicians in the most affected state are calling for more drilling. More!
“The last thing we need is to enact public policies that will certainly destroy thousands of existing jobs while preventing the creation of thousands more,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in arguing to lift an emergency moratorium on deep-sea wells.
If you needed evidence of our oil addiction, there it is. Large patches of America are so reliant on petroleum that stuffing poison right down their gullets won’t reduce their appetites.
That overriding dependency sits at the center of the policy debate over energy now gurgling up in Washington. The sheer size of BP tells you only part of what you need to know about the weight of the inertia. Before the spill, BP was valued at more than $200 billion. That’s only one company. Exxon Mobil’s value lingers around $300 billion, and its 2008 profit topped $45 billion.
Then, there are the employees and the oil services companies and the royalties that prop up budgets in states like Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas -- not to mention the guy who can’t afford to trade in the SUV he bought five years ago, along with the entire complex of coal and power companies whose interests also lie in limiting any additional costs being placed on fossil fuel emissions.
Worse still, fears of change are exploited to high heaven by unscrupulous politicians and a partisan press -- ensuring that even bringing up the subject carries a high political price and little chance of rational discussion.
It’s no wonder then that even when we’re confronted with the hard fact that petroleum’s true price is higher than the one we pay at the pump, we aren’t willing to come to terms with it.
In a recent paper, Resources for the Future economist Ian Parry found that just the quantifiable environmental costs not included in a gallon of gasoline run around $1.23, and that’s after he folded in only the mildest possible impacts from climate change. Parry performed his research well before the Gulf spill bumped the true cost even higher.
Barack Obama’s election seemed a promising opportunity for a reckoning. Or, put in economic terms, to correct the market distortion. He was supposed to be the game changer -- the charismatic leader elected with strong majorities who could overcome the status quo for the benefit of everyone.
That’s why the president’s energy speech last week was so disappointing. I'm not talking about the stick-it-to-BP part; I, along with everyone except for Joe Barton, seemed to love that stuff. And it's difficult to argue against the feel-good things Obama hinted he’d support -- mainly his advocacy for more federal support for clean energy and efficiency.
But in talking up the carrots that could make clean energy more appetizing, the president indicated that he’s given up on the stick -- putting a price on carbon pollution that would both pay for all those carrots and allow oil (and for that matter coal) to reflect something closer to its true cost.
Although the administration still insists it supports a cap-and-trade carbon pricing system, cap-and-trade’s omission from last week’s speech seems an admission that meaningful carbon pricing won’t be part of an energy bill that passes the Senate this year. I have a tactical quibble on that. Cap-and-trade looks as if it will end up to energy what the public option was to healthcare: a key to reform jettisoned for very little in return.
The larger problem is that no matter what sacrifices we make to get fossil fuels, we can’t imagine getting out from under that free-flowing spigot. In that case, subsidizing clean energy may represent progress. But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that any meaningful transition will take place without also getting rid of the artificially low cost of oil and other fossil fuels.
The natural systems smudged by BP’s spill may be lost forever. An entire region’s way of life could be blotted for decades. But only one thing will jeopardize the God-given right for that kid to fill up his jet ski on cheap gasoline and ride off into the sunset. And it won’t be me with my gun joke.
It’ll be the tar balls washing over him as they flow toward that beach on the Florida panhandle.