What Has the Pursuit of Fossil Fuels Cost Us? And Who Has Had to Pay?

Whether or not we can "run out of oil," we have to be asking bigger questions about the costs of our energy systems.

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In his piece, "What if we never run out of oil?" Charles Mann examines the possibility that new technologies and new sources of petroleum, like methane hydrate, could mean that we never run out of oil. The conclusion? As long as there is some kind of oil, somewhere, we will never make the transition to clean energy--and as a result, we won't be able to do anything about climate change.

It's true that for years, many in the environmental movement have quietly, eagerly anticipated the end of oil. You can't blame them. There's no question that running out of oil would hasten the switch to healthier forms of energy like wind and solar.

A debate on the future of energy Read more

But that doesn't mean that running out of oil is the only way we can shift our economy--any more than running out of beer is the only way to solve alcoholism. It may be radically optimistic, but I believe that, armed with an understanding of the high cost of our current energy economy, we are capable of accelerating movement to a more sustainable path.

We are pouring billions of dollars into technologies designed to extract every last drop of oil. What if the same level of commitment was made to clean energy?

The question Mann raises-- when, or if, we will run out of oil--is the wrong question. The real question is: What has the pursuit of oil cost us? Who pays the highest cost? Who reaps the benefits? How far are we willing to go? And what is the upside of continuing to rely on carbon-based fuels--whether it's methane hydrate, shale gas, or tar sands oil--when we have alternatives? The only question we don't have to ask is whether we should transition to carbon-free energy.

The consequences of relying on oil are becoming impossible to ignore. And that makes it more difficult to justify the lengths we'll go to in order to get to it.

Take a look at the tar sands. Producing tar sands oil devours staggering quantities of energy and water. And the process leaves behind a legacy of toxic lakes, dead wildlife, and cancer-stricken communities. In terms of our oil addiction, tar sands is the hard stuff. And pursuing it is an unmistakably desperate move.

We've already gone to great lengths to feed our addiction to oil. We've seen too many disasters unfold--from the Exxon Valdez spill, to more recent examples like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, or just this month, the pipeline spill that spewed 10,000 gallons of oil into an Arkansas community.

Over the years, we've watched as companies and governments repeatedly violate human rights in their pursuit of oil. We've seen them put more and more communities at risk--from Richmond, California, to Nigeria, Ecuador, and just about everywhere they operate.

And then, of course, there is climate change.

When we talk about running out of oil, the assumption is we are talking about running out of oil before we run out of water, clean air, food, and the other resources that are critical to our existence. We might not run out of oil before we find ourselves at the mercy of unprecedented war, disease and disasters. This is not hyperbole--even the Pentagon has identified climate change as a security threat, largely because of the human migrations and conflicts over resources it will bring.

So it's tough to feel like celebrating the advances in drilling technology or the discovery of methane hydrate reserves that Mann points to, even when they result from brilliant innovation. Finding new ways to get and burn fuels that contribute to climate change isn't a victory. Not in the long run.

Presented by

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the Chief Executive Officer of Green For All. More

Under her leadership, Green For All has become one of the country’s leading advocates for a clean energy economy, and an important voice on the intersection of economics and environment. Prior to joining Green For All, Phaedra was a leader in California’s labor movement, heading the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council and Working Partnerships USA. 

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