Mesmerized by Oil

Based on “America’s Oil Imports: A Self-Inflicted Burden,” by Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba, Annuals of the Association of American Geographers, v101, no. 4, July 2011.

Americans are mesmerized by oil. A real addiction. Politicians fight to open ANWAR like junkies trying to figure out just exactly where they can get a reliable supply of drugs. Or, they cast about the continental shelf, like a junkie on his knees trying to find that last cocaine rock that rolled under the couch. Digging for change among the cushions hoping to scrape together enough money for his next fix. Really. Listen to the political tenor surrounding oil on Fox News. Then, turn over to A&E and watch Intervention. The discussions on Fox sound like the arguments that drug addicts use on Intervention.

Smil lays out an argument that America is to blame for its own dependence on oil. We, in fact, are our own worst enemies for driving up the cost of gasoline. Not OPEC, not British Petroleum (BP), not even the oil lobby. Just simple, average, everyday you-and-me Americans. We are addicted to oil as addicts are addicted to meth, or crack. Automobiles convey the drugs into our system, just as needles push heroine into the bloodstream of an addict.

Yes, America – we are oil whores.

We absolutely need our Hummers, and our Cadillacs, and our giant Suburbans. Those are God-given rights, laid clean-out in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Hey, I’m right there with everyone else; I drive a Dodge Durango, one of the very worst offenders. Yes, I see the hypocrisy. Do you see the hypocrisy in yourself, though?

During the first 10 years of the 21st century, Americans spent 1.7 trillion dollars on buying foreign oil. That is $1,700 billion dollars.

In 2008 alone, Americans spent $350 billion dollars on foreign oil.

In 1975, the United States was the world’s largest producer of oil. In this year, we would be passed by the USSR. In 1977, the United States would be passed by Saudi Arabia.

As of 2010, Saudi Arabia ranks first, Russia ranks 2nd, and the United States ranks 3rd. About 1.5 million barrels of oil per day production separates 1st place from 3rd place. If that sounds like a lot, it isn’t. In 2009, the United States was using about 18.7 million barrels of oil per day. So the difference between production in Saudi Arabia and the United States works out to be about 1hr 15minutes in usage time.

According to our own Energy Information Administration (link) the United States consumes more oil than China, Japan, Brazil, and Canada combined.

Let’s add up some populations: China (1,300 million) + Japan (127 million) + Brazil (190 million) + Canada (35 million) = 1.652 billion people. Or, roughly about 25% of the world’s population.

5% of the world’s population, that’s the United States, uses the equivalent energy of 25% of the world’s population.

And, if you listen to us on the television, you’d think that it was our Manifest Destiny, handed down by God, to consume as much as we want.

Here is what makes us appear even worse than we really are, according to Smil.

The United States is the 3rd largest country, in area, on the planet, behind Russian (1), and Canada (2). We are also the world’s 3rd most populous country, behind China (1), and India (2). One might think, “Hey, we have a big country. We need transportation in order to get around and do stuff. That takes oil. Therefore, we use a lot, and rightfully so.”

One fact in that statement is true: transportation is necessary. In 2009, transportation accounted for 75% of domestic oil consumption, i.e. fuel costs. That’s right, you and me, driving around in our giant pickups, and Hummers, and Durangos. We use 75% of the oil this country supposedly needs. Not the Department of Defense, not heating or cooling energy needs. Us, going to the grocery store, soccer practice, or our trucks moving objects from point A to point B.

Superficially, the argument sounds fine. But that argument is flawed. The United States is not uniformly populated. Most of us, in fact, live on the East Coast. OK, not really. But, look at this map:

us population density mapLook at the red peaks. Those peaks tell the map reader where people live. As you can see most Americans live east of the Mississippi River. We could narrow that even further, really, and say that about 50% of Americans, 155 million people, or about the population of Japan, live north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi.

Such a concentration of humanity in one place lends itself to multi-modes of public transportation, specifically high-speed rails.

And, I, being a geographer, should have thought about this point, and only by reading Smil’s paper, did this point reach my brain.

Despite this near-perfect environment for moving people from place to place, efficiently, and at a decent price point, and environmentally sound, Americans would, and have, elected to confined themselves to their shiny V8 chariots of selfishness. Remember, I drive one, too.

Imagine taking a nice, clean, safe, high-speed train (HST) from New York to Washington, D.C., or Boston, or Philadelphia. You would have uninterrupted cell phone and wi-fi coverage. Tokyo, Japan has that, why can’t we? Once at your destination, rent an economical SMART car, a Prius, or Honda Hybrid.

Imagine the jobs created from constructing these rail systems. The people then employed to operate them. The growth pole areas that would definitely arise at stations along the rail paths. Imagine the use of technology, advances in technology, the increase in productivity. And, ultimately, the resulting savings from not using petroleum. How much different could $1.7 trillion dollars have been used in the United States? How many jobs does that represent? Money literally burnt in engines around the country.

No. Americans do not want that. Not enough, anyway. Many of us are still stuck in the euphoria of the 1950s and early 1960s. Ideals and models of behavior that have been passed along, “inherited culture,” we geographers call it.

Drunk on our own kool-aid. Slimy, oily, kool-aid.

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