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Nobody Gets Oil

"While friends of the porcupine caribou struggle to protect the 1002 area from oil drillers, it's estimated that we could be pumping as many as 16 billion barrels of oil — as much as 30 years worth of Saudi Arabian-type oil...."

So they say on cfif.org (The Center For Individual Freedom). They don't get oil.

Bush doesn't get oil, and he's an oil tycoon. Kerry doesn't get oil, but he wants us to get coal. Shell, Chevron, Texaco — they don't get oil. The public sure doesn't get oil. Worst of all, we the media consumers of the United States are quickly losing the capacity to recognize that something is terribly wrong with our addiction to energy consumption.

As far as the CFIF is concerned, the statement extracted above is a cornerstone of their argument that we should drill for oil in Alaska. The pejorative mention of the porcupine caribou and environmental efforts (elsewhere in their article) are meant as ad hominem and passive aggressive jabs at opposing arguments. Consequently, they are disposable statements.

The remarkable thing is the amount of content that they miss in their "analysis" of drilling in Alaska. Yet, the most important point to be made is clearly stated, or at the very least implied, in the extraction above.

The alleged benefit of drilling Alaska dry is that we could stockpile 30 years of oil — which is a liberal estimate (one can identify its liberality in light of the fact that there is no reference provided.) An alternative reference suggests that there are "Nearly 11 billion barrels of undiscovered oil..." in the region of interest. And importantly, "Half of the undiscovered, conventionally recoverable oil and gas in the region may be economically recoverable under existing conditions." (Reference below). That means something like 5 to 6 billion available barrels.

The current rate of petroleum consumption in the US, according to the Department of Energy, is 19,761,000 Barrels per day. Based on this statistic, the US goes through 6 billion barrels in 303 days. Hence, all of the drilling in Alaska might account for less than a year of our oil consumption.

Importantly, though the estimate is ridiculously liberal, the CFIF suggests a possible 30 additional years of oil. Set aside pressing questions about the unexpected rates of energy consumption growth and questions about the Hubbert peak, and questions about their math, and focus on the thrill of 30 years.

Oil is a non-renewable resource.

That is precisely what is said in the CFIF argument. Moreover, they say, whether they like it or not, that even with their outlandish estimate, we might have 30 years left in us.

"Oil is a non-renewable resource" means that when it runs out, it will never come back.

It is not altogether clear that the CFIF understands the significance of this point. One significant side-effect of the point is that drilling Alaska dry is as futile as drilling anywhere dry. It is futile because the Earth will run out of oil. That is, in fact, what it means to be a non-renewable resource.

Let's make that entirely clear for those who might not have picked up on the subtlety: Oil is a non-renewable resource. Non-renewable means that when we use it all up, it's gone forever.

And let's not lose sight of the point about our enervated capacity to understand this point. It is difficult to grasp the point because the only political talk, "scientific" talk and media talk available talks about reducing dependence on foreign oil.

Given the obvious and simple, though popularly neglected, fact that oil will run out, the more important investigation is not about how we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but how we can reduce our dependence on all oil. Because, as noted and yes it does bear repeating, oil is a non-renewable resource.

This is a radically more difficult question, and one that many probably do not want to tackle, for the answers require contemplating lifestyle changes. A quick investigation might look like this:

How can we reduce our dependence on oil?

— Stop driving everywhere
— Buy local produce
— Stop building houses so far away from services
— Live closer to work
— Walk to local businesses
— Use alternative energy sources
— Live without air conditioning
— Less television

Crazy, isn't it? No one wants to hear about such things. But it is undeniable that oil is so intimately involved with so much of our lives that, were we to lose it all right now, our lives would come to a screeching halt. It would not be comfortable.

Consider the automobile. Or more accurately, consider the SUV, since that is what most people drive — for some mysterious reason. Any reasonable person can admit that hauling around four and a half tons of steel and forty gallons of gasoline is a bit excessive just to get to the grocery store.

How far do most people live from the grocery store? It might seem close when you can average forty miles an hour to get there, but imagine that without fuel, that four to five mile walk would come as a great surprise.

Why do most people live so far from the grocery store? Suburban sprawl is the best answer. People "want" to live miles and miles from the things that they "need" to live their lives. This is a strange thing. It is strange to situate oneself at such huge distances from one's "needs", yet to feel deeply entitled to those "needs".

Two related issues thread through these observations: a false sense of entitlement and irresponsible urban planning. The former is a typical response to this family of criticisms: I earned it, so I can do what I want. I will call this position "Entitlement Egoism". The latter is the force responsible for the huge distances between people and their needs, which has come to be called "suburban isolationism" in a few places.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy roughly defines egoism: "[T]he individual self is the motivating moral force and the end of moral action." Furthermore, they define a strong version of Ethical Egoism: "Ethical egoism is the theory that the promotion of one's own good is in accordance with morality." Paraphrased: what is good for me is the right thing to do. Or, what makes an action a right action is that it is good for me. This is an extraordinarily weak ethical position. It is rather immature, one might say; it is close how we might describe children's motivations.

I introduce Entitlement Egoism as the position that "I am owed what I consider good for me." This is a slight variation on garden variety ethical egoism, and at least as weak. Thus, my characterization of the position is something of a straw man. So be it. It still can serve as a characterization of a popular mindset — particularly the sort of mindset used to justify dragging around tons of steel and oil just to pick up a gallon of milk.

I suggest that an enormous number of suburban dwellers are there because, as they see it, they earned the right to be there. They earned the right to get out of what they perceive as a dirty and crime-infested city life, and take on a sort of Utopian lifestyle far away from it all. This is the sense of "entitlement" in entitlement egoism. The further point is: that to which they feel entitled is that which they perceive to be good.

Rich Tucker astutely points out that "people live in the suburbs because they like it there." And he inadvertently reinforces the point above: "They could choose to live in a city, where often they would be closer to work and could walk to stores and shops. But they prefer the safety, security and affordability of suburban life." He means this to be a positive feature of the suburbs.

Perceived safety, security and affordability, I agree, are the sorts of things we hear about that make suburban life seem to gleam.

But all of these things depend on oil.

The safety of the suburbs depends partly on proximity to public safety organizations, such as the police and fire departments. A police car with no gas, and a fire truck with no diesel will not help. So, without oil, those safety features evaporate.

Affordability is a strange point: typically, city life is criticized for its cheapness while the suburbs are lauded for their affluence. Suburban life is absolutely not affordable, and that, in the terms of the Rich Tuckers of the world, is what makes it secure: the criminal element is priced out. The criminal element cannot afford the gas. Unless they get very good at crime, in which case they are welcome in gated communities.

True enough, folks could choose to be closer to all the places and things that they need. But they only choose not to be closer because of the SUV. Minus the family SUV, proximity to resources becomes paramount. Minus oil means minus the family SUV.

Oil, I mentioned, is a non-renewable resource. When the oil dries up, so too, then, do the perceived good reasons to live in the suburbs. For when the oil dries up, which it necessarily must because it is a non-renewable resource, the suburbs will start to feel what they have glossed over for so long: suburban isolationism.

Growing up in a suburb is, typically, culturally vacuous. This is the case because kids do not have access to the lifeline that ties the suburbs to the rest of civilization. That is, kids under 16 do not have access to the SUV. Thus, growing up in a suburb depends wholly on parental access to the SUV, and thus exposure to civilization happens according to the parents' schedules. Those schedules, ironically, are rapidly shrinking — the irony is that as we introduce more and more freeways and more and more productivity tools and convenience products, we end up with less and less free time.

As oil starts to run out, the cost of getting from the suburbs to cultural centers, i.e., the cities, will rise dramatically. Already SUV drivers complain that at $2.00 a gallon they spend over $60 to fill up their tanks (pun intended). Imagine if gas went up to $4.00 a gallon. $120 to drive, on average, 350 miles, would be outrageous. If one works 50 miles from home, and travels briefly on the weekends, that would be two fill-ups a week: $240, which is about $1000 a month. Even cutting the average trip to work in half, it might be $500 a month when gas prices double.

But as oil gets more and more scarce, which it will because it is, after all a non-renewable resource, the price will rise higher and higher. With this, the cost of consumer goods will rise, since every consumer good in the world had to be shipped in some manner. And all shipping depends on, of course, oil.

Currently, I can buy vegetables at the local farmers' market for about one third of the grocery store prices. (I did my own little research project and this is what I came up with.) The extra cost in the supermarket is made up of such things as the cost to ship the produce from point A to point B. Also, we pay for the climate control in the store, which depends on energy costs, obviously. It depends on marketing materials, and so on. At the very least, we can expect to see those prices rise as oil gradually dries up. Note also that many of the fertilizers and much of the packaging we buy are petroleum derived products, hence also at the mercy of oil.

These are a couple of examples of how suburban isolationism will happen. There will come a time, not too far in the future, when those in the suburbs will not have the resources to travel out of the suburbs. Emphasis: contact with the bulk of civilization, for the 'burb dweller, depends entirely on oil.

Thus, when oil really starts drying up, who will want to live in the suburbs? Most folks will no longer be able to afford the lifestyle, and won't probably like the isolation anyway. Houses will go on the market. But the prices will be drastically lower than they are now, for demand will have dropped far below supply. Financial markets, particularly the mortgage business, will take some hard hits.

A possible solution lies in refining urban planning to take a sort of moral position. Responsible planning will necessarily involve getting jobs and services closer to where people live. They will not like this, but it is essential. They will not like it because it will necessarily mean re-zoning currently residential-only areas to mixed-use areas.

Alternatively, or in conjunction with this, urban planners will need to emphasize the development of downtowns and urban areas with mixed-use space. Dividing buildings into residential, commerical and corporate spaces will be necessary in order to scale back the need to travel more than a few miles. To travel more than a few miles, we will need a stronger mass-transit infrastructure, and that mass-transit will have to depend on an energy source other than oil. This is to say, buses and diesel trains will not be the answer. We might look to solar power or electricity — generated, perhaps, hydro-electrically.

In any case, entitlement-egoistical attitudes will have to change. Those living in the suburbs will have to adjust to a radically different lifestyle — one that does not involve much travel; a lifestyle that exposes the reality of suburban isolationism.

The day is coming when nobody will get oil. Nobody will be able to afford oil. Hauling a wheeled hunk of steel to the supermarket will be a long-lost lifestyle. Eating foods shipped half way across the country in plastic containers will become an obscure historical tidbit. Living in 4,000 square foot climate-controlled monstrosities will be unthinkable and looked upon with moral derision.

And the irony is that everyone is talking about it right now. But so few hear it. Everyone who talks about how long we will have to rely on foreign oil — they are all inadvertently talking about the finitude of oil. But none of them are willing to say, yet, that the day will come when nobody gets oil.


References:

Articles
Exploring ANWR
How Much Oil Is Really There?
The Beauty of the Suburbs

Reference Materials
The Hubbert Peak
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Egoism

Stats
Department of Energy

More Recently (March 2005)
Bush pushes for Alaskan drilling as oil prices climb
Guardian UK Oil Quiz
Some Shaky Figures on ANWR Drilling

© 2004 Sorrell
September