Energy Dependence in the United States:
PHS 100 Environmental Science
Dr. David Terrell
Warner Pacific College
November 12, 2010
Many Americans are still resistant to the idea that we as a nation are addicted to fossil fuel as a means of energy production. In the past 25 years, the idea has begun to gain ground not only with the conservationist community where the idea has always been popular, but the general public as well. A portion of us are finally awakening to the fact that this country needs to become less dependent on fossil fuels to power our daily lives and produce our sustenance goods. We are also becoming aware that our economy is suffering from our dependence on foreign oil imports. Yet there are still huge pockets of resistance to the need to actively conserve the resources we have left to us. Phrases like “drill baby, drill” and “if I can pay for it, it isn’t too expensive” are still a part of our daily language. This paper will talk about how it is possible to wean this country slowly from oil and other fossil fuels and the alternatives to these substances that are in research and development for common consumption.
Quiet Down and Listen
The United States and China are now in competition for the title of World Energy Hogs. Up till very recently, the United States was the biggest user of fossil fuels in the world. Second to none, since the glut of cheap sweet crude that glutted the marketplace, our usage and dependence has skyrocketed. OPEC is seeing record profits and they are coming out of the pockets if the American and Chinese consumers.
Anyone who can read that sentence and not feel a chill run down his or her spine still lives under the misguided impression that a miracle will happen and the oil producing companies will discover an ocean of oil that will last till the end of time and gas prices will drop to levels not seen since the late 1960s. Dream on consumer, dream on. Here are the realities;
A) The world currently sits at the top of the peak of fossil fuel consumption. It looks something like this;
B) As it is perfectly obvious from looking at this chart, demand and prices are going up while production is going down. Feeling a little dizzy yet? Is your pocket book having tremors? Just wait, it gets worse.
C) China is experiencing an upsurge in their economy which is placing an increased demand not only on fossil fuel, but other non-renewable resources.
This is what their consumption levels look like. Do you see a similarity here?
So, here it is in a nutshell; we are heading toward another oil crisis. OPEC has tightened exports and crude oil prices are spiking much as they did in the 1970s during the oil embargo. This country had to rely solely on its own oil output to survive. For those who were born in the 1980s or later and are unaware of what happened during the oil embargo, please allow this writer to enlighten the reader from personal experience. So, let’s all quiet down and listen.
As a long time resident of North Portland, this writer can recall that at one point, there were 11 full service gasoline stations on North Lombard from North Portsmouth to North Leavitt Streets. That is 6 stop lights and more than 60 blocks. In the early 1970s that meant the gasoline station also included an automotive mechanic and an attendant who not only gassed up your car, but cleaned the windshield, checked the air pressure in your tires and made sure all the fluids in your car were at appropriate levels. When the oil embargo first struck in mid 1973 after the OPEC nations flexed their political muscles after the U.S. and Great Britain committed the ultimate faux pas of standing by a political ally in the mid east, the privately owned family run stations were the first to feel the effects of this political decision. (Barsky, 2004) They sold out their supplies to local consumers in a matter of days to panic buying.
Then the panic deepened. There were lines of cars stretching the length of Lombard from the St Johns end to North Greely. Cars would run out of gas waiting in lines for fuel from gas stations that had run out of fuel themselves as fights broke out over the last two gallons of gasoline at stations that had been out for more than five days. Many small owners went out of business in a very short time. This author’s family was one of those who lost their business when prices began to rise exponentially. At the beginning of the embargo, gasoline sold for an average of 35 cents a gallon. By the end of it in 1973, gas prices had tripled. It took an act of diplomatic legerdemain by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to negotiate prices back down to “only” double what they had been only 1 year before.
Gas rationing became a national catch phrase again. The last time fuel rationing had been done in the US was during WW II when supplies were running short because of shipping restrictions due to war. The nation was under siege and held hostage by its own addictions to cheap fuel. Then President Gerald Ford lowered the nation’s freeway speed limit to 55 miles per hour in response to the nation’s call for solutions. For more than a year, this country made due without easy access to gasoline. It was a matter of several months before the country was put on a system that allowed people to obtain gasoline in a more orderly manner.
Fast forward to the present day. There is no such thing as a steady gas price. Fuel that had once been less expensive per gallon than a candy bar sells for more than eight times what it sold for in 1973. OPEC countries are sitting squarely on the largest deposits of crude oil in the world. The USA and China are the world’s largest users. But those deposits won’t last forever. They may not hold out another 10 years at our current rates of consumption. This time permanent steps to scale back our use of fossil fuels MUST be taken. There are no other options open to us all. Here is one option that has been presented many times and yet there are still those who oppose it.
The Pacific Northwest sits in a solar and wind rich region. There is technology available to us that will steadily decrease our needs for these dwindling fuels.
Wind turbines have been set up in The Gorge. Wind is a common fact of life in our region. People will feel about these turbines much the same way residents of Texas felt about the oil wells that sprung up and dotted their landscape 70 years ago. The difference is that the wind turbines don’t make noise and produce smells that make people physically ill. Sure, they hinder the view, but the trade off is less dependence on fossil fuels to power our homes.
Solar panel farms must be set up as well. The experiment by the State of Oregon to power the freeway lights along the I-205 and I-5 corridors between Wilsonville and Portland have been a raging success, provided a way to keep the metal thieves out of them is found. The technology may not be perfected now, but the future holds great things in store for us if we can be the forward thinkers we have been in the past.
Alternative fuels for vehicles have been a source of contention for 30 years or more. Now the time has come for us to put aside our pugilistic natures and work together. Although the way our leaders are treating each other these days, it looks like that may not happen unless the public makes it clear by a clear and concise vote of our pocketbooks that these things are what we want and what we need in order to survive.
Someone once said that it is only on the precipice that human kind is capable of change. The precipice is exactly where we stand. Change is never easy out here, east of Eden. There is no God to speak to us in an audible voice and tell us that this is what we MUST do. He speaks to us in a soft Voice that it is up to us to hear. And we must quiet down and listen. Science and science fiction are great places to start our process. After all, thanks to the late, great Gene Roddenberry, we have today’s cell phones and automatic doors. Just think of what we could do if we looked around and said to ourselves, “Look at that. I wonder if we can develop this into a usable product.” If not for that question, we would still have suppressed the Electric car and the Volt, the Leaf and the Prius would never have been developed and now sold to the buying public.
Now, we just have to get ourselves into the right habits. Recycling EVERYTHING is a great start. The Depression Era population could teach us a thing or two about using it up and wearing it out; we just need to quiet down and listen.
Barsky, R. B. (2004). Oil & The Macro Economy. Journal of Econmoic Perspectives , 18 (4), 115-134.
Foss, B. (2004, July 2). The Earth's Best Defense. Retrieved November 12, 2010, from Natural Resources Defence Council: http://www.nrdc.org/air/transportation/gasprices.asp
Staniford, S. (2010, January 7). Early Warning. Retrieved November 12, 2010, from The Risks to Global Civilization: http://earlywarn.blogspot.com/2010/01/where-are-chinese-cars-in-their-oil.html