May 12th, 2010

clean up

In defense of energy

I never really thought I'd be writing a post like this one, as I'm not particularly conservative in any way shape or form, but I keep on seeing articles like this one, by Matthew Yglesias at Think Progress. This isn't to particularly harp on Matt, but his is the most recent post of many that I've seen like this.
Time and again I’m struck by the extent to which political attitudes toward environmental issues are determined by local producer interests. You’d think that the people of Louisiana, who’ve already seen their state’s largest city devastated by a hurricane and now have a gigantic pool of oil headed for their shores, might be among the biggest skeptics of the fossil fuel industry. Instead, Louisiana is a big oil state and the spill has mostly just been causing Louisiana elected officials to double-down on their love of the industry. I saw Mary Landrieu on television yesterday talking about drilling, and Sharon Begley offers this tale of the state legislature working to kneecap environmental legislation (that’s via Mike Tomasky).

Oh, you foolish people on the Gulf Coast, these sorts of posts seem to say, you don't understand what's good for you. Your politicians are in the pockets of the oil companies, not caring about the interests of your people. You clearly don't care about your fish, your wild life, the earth, etc. Oil companies are horrible, terrible entities that serve no useful or good purpose, don't you people see that? How could you do this? You betray us. And so on and so forth.

Yes, the fishing and tourism industry is horrifically impacted in southern Louisiana, and our own coast here in Texas is going to be threatened when the winds shift in a few weeks. The photographs, the size, the devastation is horrific. The death and damage will be something that we live with for decades, long after the rest of the country has moved on to whatever is next.

But the environment is one facet of the community. When something like the BP disaster happens, the sheer impact of the oil and gas industry on my community is really, really evident. Friends from all over the political spectrum work for these companies, and there's a trickle down effect to the rest of the local economy. We all saw it when Enron went under ten years ago: charitable giving was horrifically glutted, real estate prices collapsed, buildings sat empty. Thousands of people lost their jobs in this part of the world. We saw it in the 1980s, when the oil bubble burst, and half the city went into bankruptcy. Conversely, in the last two years, we've been relatively stable compared to the rest of the country. Housing prices haven't been that badly shaken up, and job loss wasn't as bad as most other places. And a large part of that is due to the current relative stability of the energy industry.

And the thing we all are very, very aware of is that without energy industry, we'd be devastated as a community. There are literally hundreds of thousands of jobs, probably millions, in this part of the country that depend on the exploration, extraction and production of fossil fuels. It's not just the people who work for the direct exploration companies. It's everyone. My trainer told me he lost a client because of the oil spill, a lawyer whose next three to ten years will be so absorbed with this, to the extent he can't take an hour or two a week in the foreseeable to work out. My sister sells corporate events for a venue, and a massive hunk of her clients are oil companies or the companies that service the oil companies. I'm sure at some point or another BP, Haliburton or Transocean has scheduled an event with her, possibly even had to recently cancel one. One of my closest friends owns a company that supplies to offshore rigs. And so on and so forth.

This is not to give excuses or to tell people to not be concerned about the impact of an oil spill. It is awful. I don't want to mitigate that. I don't want to dress it down or say that no one was at fault or that the oil industry as a whole doesn't have responsibility to a) literally clean up its act, b) accept regulation, and c) pay for it. The investigation, I imagine, will begin to uncover some truly awful things about the oversight of these wells. And the companies that explore need to bear the brunt of the responsibility.

But this is to explain, a little, why people like Mary Landreau are just as concerned about preserving the oil and gas industry as they are the fishing and tourism industries in their states. Especially in a fragile economy where jobs are already pretty hard to come by.

And I suppose it's also to vent a little about some of the hypocricy in the country's attitude, especially on the Left, about energy consumption. The Sierra Club protestors who went to the Offshore Technology Conference last week had to get there somehow, and unless they walked or rode bikes, fossil fuels were involved in getting there. Unless you're camping in a canvas tent for a week, using no plastics, no synthetic materials, it's nearly impossible to live in this country for a prolonged period of time without fossil fuels. Transportation, power, materials, cooking and heating fuel: We consume this commodity like it's going out of style.

We flirt with alternatives and try to reduce our usage. I chose an electrical company that provides 100% wind power to the grid. I try not to use as many plastic bags when I shop. I join the Sierra Club and CCA and Clean Water Action and all sorts of other environmental groups. I upgrade my appliances to Energy Star ratings. I recycle. Etc, and so forth.

But fossil fuels are such a dominant, even necessary part of our existence that it would be almost impossible to function in the world on a vegan level of no-fossil fuels.

So we consume, consume and consume. And so long as the oil comes from far away, so we don't see the impact it has on the earth, we don't have any problem with it. These sorts of environmental catastrophies involving oil are not necessarily uncommon, especially in poor places with rich minerals.

Until true energy alternatives are developed, we all have to face the reality that our way of life necessitates the exploration and production of fossil fuels. And whether that happens on our own coastlines and lands or those that are far away, we collectively bear the responsibility and fault for the demage done to the planet.