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.

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.

One big problem with these new technologies is that they threaten to funnel funds, innovation, and momentum away from real carbon-free, renewable energy solutions. As Mann points out--a fuel like natural gas could be a useful crutch as we transition from dirtier fuels like coal--but unless we're prepared to set it aside at some point, it fails us miserably.

Critics raise questions about the viability of a full, fast transition to clean energy--including whether our grid could handle it. These concerns are sometimes overblown--just this month, Synapse Energy Economics released a report showing that the grid would be reliable even with a much higher level of renewables. But the transition to clean energy does bring legitimate challenges. And they would be more readily solved if we were willing to spend as much money and time on them as we are on finding hidden petroleum reserves and developing deep sea drilling vessels.

In fact, the strides that have been made in clean energy technology thus far have been made largely in spite of our energy priorities, not because of them.

In the piece, Mann notes that for McKelveyan social scientists,

...oil reserves should not be thought of as physical entities. Rather, they are economic judgments: how much petroleum experts believe can be harvested from given areas at an affordable price.

The problem is, the folks making these calculations are missing something. When they talk about the "affordable price" for oil, they fail to take into account oil's staggering cost to human health and to the resources we depend on, like air and water. They fail to consider the cost of fiddling with the very balance of life on earth. What is the cost of childhood asthma on refinery row in Port Arthur, Texas? What is the cost of fracking to communities like Dimock, Pennsylvania where drillers and homeowners fought in court for years over tainted water? What is the cost of recovering from storms like Katrina and Sandy? These costs have to be part of the equation.

To resign ourselves to believing that the market alone will determine how we respond to this problem is shortsighted. It overlooks our instinct for self-preservation, as well as our history. In America, at least, progress on issues like civil rights, women's rights, and child labor has been shaped by moral imperative, not economic demand. The force of the market is powerful. But it is not the only force.

The calculation that really matters is this: Do we want our kids and grandkids to have a chance live healthy, peaceful lives? Do we want to preserve ourselves? Or do we want to keep extracting and burning all the oil we can get to?

Many of the experts Mann talks to say, effectively, it's too late to do anything about it. That's a dangerous attitude. When your car is speeding towards a brick wall, are you going to swerve, or are you going to argue about whether or not it's too late to swerve?

We are heading toward a brick wall--that wall may not be the end of oil, as we once thought. It may be the end of us. And I don't know about you, but I'd prefer to turn the wheel now, while we still can.