Earlier this year, environmentalists won a temporary victory when the federal government turned its back on a proposal to open the waters off Virginia to offshore drilling.
“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to start leasing off the Atlantic coast,” Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
Environmental activists were by no means alone in the opposition camp. They were joined by the tourism industry, the commercial fishing industry, NASA and—perhaps most significantly—the Department of Defense, which expressed concern that offshore drilling could interfere with Naval operations.
Needless to say, this did not go over well with oil company executives.
Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, was quoted in the Pilot as saying that the decision “appeases extremists who seek to stop oil and natural gas production.” The result, he added, will “increase the cost of energy for American consumers and close the door for years to creating new jobs, new investments and boosting energy security.”
If he’d been honest, the real answer would have been a lot shorter. The push for offshore drilling is about greed, pure and simple. Never mind the severe threats it poses to our oceans and shores, as the BP oil spill made horrifyingly clear.
The oil industry claims, of course, that it has learned its lesson from that catastrophe and has taken steps to ensure that such a thing will not happen again. Such a claim stretches the boundaries of credibility, to say the least. But suppose we take them at their word. Does this alleviate the problem?
Not according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has studied, in depth, the potential ramifications of offshore drilling.
“Even without a major spill,” states the SELC website, “the industrialization and infrastructure associated with drilling—the rigs, refineries, pipelines, traffic, and routine spills and accidents—would irreparably change our coastal communities and economies.”
That’s worth bearing in mind. After all, you can be sure of this: In the eyes of the oil industry, the government’s decision is not final but rather a temporary setback. Given the enormous potential profits at stake, how could it be otherwise?
Either way, the controversy over offshore drilling is a mere part of a much bigger issue—the debate over our energy policies in general.
On one side are people who believe we need to act urgently to reduce our dependence on oil, domestic as well as foreign, by developing clean, alternative energy sources and by stopping our wasteful practices.
On the other side are people who believe we need to extract oil and natural gas as aggressively as possible.
The latter view, however, is a glaring example of short-term thinking. Sooner or later, we will have to come to terms with all of this, as journalist Paul Roberts argued in his 2005 book The End of Oil.
Within 30 years, he estimated, we will have burned our way through most of the available oil on the planet.
After the book came out, many people disagreed with his assessment. But to my mind, they were splitting hairs—for there remains one indisputable fact: oil is a finite resource.
There are those who argue that natural gas is the “clean alternative” and have lobbied, as a result, for the practice of “fracking.” Count so-called liberal Hillary Clinton among them.
The trouble is, as many studies have confirmed, fracking is also extremely dangerous. The argument against it is spelled out very clearly, in fact, in an award-winning documentary called Triple Divide, produced and directed by former Coastal Virginia resident Melissa Troutman. I can’t recommend it highly enough if you want to learn more about this subject.
The more I reflect on all of this, the more I’m convinced that we need to look at the big picture. Unfortunately, most of us are spoiled and live, day-to-day, with neither a sense of history nor concern for the long-term health of our planet and future generations. Thus the BP oil spill, which happened just six years ago, has largely been forgotten by the vast majority of Americans who were not directly affected by it. As for future generations, well—that’s their problem. As long as gas prices remain around two dollars a gallon, all is well—right?
The thought of anything that might threaten “the American way of life,” in other words, is intolerable.
But it is precisely our “American way of life” that we need to question. The solution does not lie simply in developing solar energy and other alternative sources. Part of the solution also lies in a radical revision of our lifestyle choices: the kinds of cars we drive, our attitudes toward mass transit, our reliance on food that is trucked thousands of miles from source to supermarket, our overreliance on things like air conditioning and the very design of our sprawling communities.
Such a vision will no doubt strike some readers as naïve, at best, if not downright un-American.
But here’s the thing: It is naïve only to someone who is utterly lacking in vision. Was it naïve to believe we could fly? Was it naïve of John F. Kennedy when he said we could put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s? Was it naïve, for that matter, for the American colonists to believe that they could win independence from the most powerful nation on earth?
Of course not. The skeptics in all of these instances were merely short-sighted.
If anything lies at the heart of the “American way,” in the best sense of that phrase, it is that we, as a nation, can do anything we put our minds to—including liberating ourselves from fossil fuels. The problem is not that this is “impractical.” The problem is that such a national initiative would be at odds with the interests of our corporate oligarchy.
Thus we’re left with an even bigger picture: The problem will not be solved until, as Bernie Sanders has argued, we get rid of politicians who are owned by the oil and gas industries, among other corporate interests, and pass laws to eliminate the influence of these corporations on our national policies.
In short, it’s time for Americans to wake up, educate ourselves and do what’s right for the sake of our great-great-great grandchildren and our planet.