Whether we like it or not, we need oil (Published in the Santa Barbara News Press in April of 2009)

While attending last week’s County Board of Supervisors meeting I was reminded of a recent newspaper article I read, with a response to a story about a hunter who had killed a deer.  Outraged, the writer stated that the hunter should have instead gone to the store and bought their meat where it is made.  It seems to me that most people don’t think about all the things we see, touch, and use in our daily lives that come either directly or indirectly from oil and natural gas.  The combination of this lack of understanding of how much we depend on oil for so many things, and unwarranted fear resulting from the scare tactics used by some opposed to offshore drilling, has created a political climate that is contrary to our best interests.

Many people don’t realize that about one-third of all the oil we use in this country goes into things other than transportation.  Coincidentally, the entire oil production of the United States is about one-third of what we use.  This means that even if we could find a way to stop using oil for all transportation needs, we would still need the entire production of the United States to provide all of the products made from oil that we all use.
Let’s look at just a few of the literally thousands of products that come directly from oil:   Lipstick, nail polish, clothes made from synthetic fibers, shoes, hairspray, soaps, computers, phones, televisions, fax machines, printers, copiers, pens, paint, carpet, vinyl flooring and counters, some insulation, some padding in furniture, chemicals, cleaners and detergents, appliances, remote controls, coffeemakers, cement and asphalt, and everything else made from plastics and polymers you find in your home.  This list doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the things made directly from oil, and lists none of the thousands of other products made with the energy produced from oil.  These are things that just about everyone uses on a daily basis, yet we don’t think about where this stuff comes from… it comes from oil. 

The simple truth is that we could not live our lives without oil, even if we all stopped driving today.  And, we certainly will not stop driving anytime soon, nor will people in other countries.  As the population of the world continues to grow, the demand, not just for oil for transportation purposes, but for all of the other things we all want, will continue to grow as well.  A lot was made of the growing demand for fuels from countries like China and India, with their huge populations of more than one-billion people each.  But think about their growing demand for all the other things that come from oil, as they increase their earnings power, and want to improve their lives. 

We need to be practical, and to realize that everyone reading this right now will be dead long before we stop using oil.  Further, I believe that we are many decades away from finding a viable alternative to oil for transportation.  And, even if we were to find one (or several to be used in combination), we would go right on using oil for all of those other things we need and want. 

We use 20 million barrels of oil every day in this country.  If you took every solar panel on the planet, and ran it at maximum, you would get the equivalent of about 45,000 barrels of oil per day, which is less than three tenths of one percent of what we use.  The cost, manufacturing capacity, and land that would be required to expand solar, wind, or any of the current technologies to even cover five percent of our total needs would be prohibitive.  It is simply not realistic to think that any of the currently available alternatives can make a meaningful difference in the next twenty-five years; if ever.

Last week’s vote to send a letter to Governor Schwarzenegger stating that the County Board of Supervisors is opposed to offshore drilling, supported by supervisors Carbajal, Wolf, and Farr, as well as the letter from Assemblyman Nava, highlights the reasons why the public has failed to demand that we lift the moratorium on offshore drilling off of the California coast.  These supervisors, responding to the very vocal, but misguided environmental organizations opposed to offshore drilling, spoke about how we need to promote alternative energy, and that allowing more drilling would send the wrong message.  What message… that we all use oil, and if we don’t drill for it at home we have to buy it from the Middle East, putting billions of dollars every week into the hands of people who want to kill us? 

I believe the Board is sending the wrong message by sending this letter, and that message is that they prefer pacifying a very small percentage of our county’s residents, rather than addressing the very real financial issues we face; financial challenges that can only be overcome if we allow more offshore drilling.  I applaud supervisors Gray and Centeno for standing up to this vocal minority and voting against sending the letter.

I care about the environment and support alternative energy, and believe that we need to make the investments today that will eventually lead us to a viable alternative to oil.  But that eventuality is far, far in the future, and today, tomorrow, next week, next year, and into the next decade and beyond, we will be using oil. 
The oil off of our coast will get drilled and produced; and sooner rather than later.  One need only look back to last year when oil spiked to above $140 per barrel, and gasoline at the pump shot-up to above $4 per gallon.  Gasoline prices were only elevated for a month or two, but that was enough to get even fervent environmentalists to clamor for more offshore drilling.  

Remember drill baby drill?  That wasn’t just coming from the oil companies; it was coming from the people who were running out of gas on the freeways because they couldn’t afford enough gas to last from paycheck to paycheck, and from everyone who was worried about whether they would be able to buy food for their families because their gas bill was so high.  Ask yourself what will happen if gas prices go back to $4 per gallon or higher and stay there for one year… two years.  I will tell you that it is a virtual certainty that gasoline prices will go back to those levels sooner or later, and that people will be screaming for more drilling as a result.

Unfortunately, I do not believe the moratorium prohibiting offshore drilling will be lifted through the normal political machinery.  The issue is far too contentious, and no politician will want to risk their career backing it.  What it will take is a state-wide referendum—a ballot measure that the citizens of the state can vote on.  A poll that was conducted last summer showed that over 60 percent of Californians support offshore drilling.  I strongly suspect that if the issue were put to the voters, it would pass and the moratorium would be lifted. 
The bottom line is that we need the oil, and the state and our county need the billions of dollars in revenues that drilling would generate. I would ask each of you reading this article, as you go-through your daily lives over the next few days, to think about all of the things you touch, see, and use that come from oil.  If you do this, I think you will agree that we need to accept the reality of our situation, which is that we need oil, and we need to produce as much as possible here at home.

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