The Myth of Oil Addiction

by Marlo Lewis on September 1, 2011

in Blog, Features

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It’s a trick employed by rhetoricians from time immemorial. When their case against an opponent is unpersuasive on the merits, they invoke the image of something their target audience fears or hates. Thus, for example, political pleaders have asserted that money, Dick Cheney, or Zionism “is a cancer on the body politic.”

Perhaps the most influential use of this tactic in modern times is the attack on carbon dioxide (CO2) as “global warming pollution” and on CO2 emitters as “polluters.” Many who know better, including highly credentialed scientists, routinely couple the words “carbon” and “pollution” in their public discourse.

In reality, CO2 — like water vapor, the atmosphere’s main greenhouse gas — is a natural constituent of clean air. Colorless, odorless, and non-toxic to humans at 30 times ambient concentrations, CO2 is an essential building block of the planetary food chain. The increase in the air’s CO2 content since the dawn of the industrial revolution — from 280 to 390 parts per million – boosts the water-use efficiency of trees, crops, and other plants; helps protect green things from the damaging effects of smog and UV-B radiation; and helps make food more plentiful and nutritious. The many health and welfare benefits of atmospheric CO2 enrichment make CO2 unlike any other substance ever previously regulated as a “pollutant.”

A closely related abuse of the English languge is the oft-repeated claim that America is “addicted to oil.” Although popularized by a Texas oil man, former President G.W. Bush, the phrase is a rhetorical staple of the same folks who inveigh against “carbon pollution.” NASA scientist James Hansen, arguably the world’s most famous carbonophobe besides Al Gore, recently denounced the Keystone XL Pipeline as a “dirty needle” that, if approved, would feed our supposed oil addiction.

President Obama is expected later this year to approve or deny a permit allowing construction of the proposed 1,700 mile pipeline that would bring oil from Canada’s vast tar sands reserves to U.S. refineries in the Midwest and Gulf Coast. As reported in The New York Times, Hansen said that Obama has a rare opportunity, by denying the permit, to show that he is not a “hopeless addict.”

“If Obama chooses the dirty needle it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing all along, like the other well-oiled coal-fired politicians, with no real intention of solving the addiction,” Hansen said.

Why does anyone listen to Hansen? Because he’s a highly credentialed scientist. But when he says stuff like this, he is only pretending to speak as a scientist. He is actually speaking as a political advocate, and with scant regard for facts or reason.

America is no more addicted to oil than our ancestors were to horse fodder. We use oil, as they used fodder, to get us where we want to go. What consumers care about is not the oil or the fodder, but the mobility it provides and the associated costs. Yes, those costs include environmental impacts. But, mile for mile, a horse is a far more polluting ‘technology’ than an automobile. As soon as an alternative fuel comes along that delivers more bang for our transportation buck than gasoline does, Americans will demand it, and competition will drive profit-seeking firms to supply it.

Yes, we depend on oil to fuel most of our cars, marine vessels, and aircraft. But dependence is not addiction. We also depend on electricity to power our lap tops, iPods, and cell phones, and we depend on food and water to sustain life. No sane person would say we are addicted to those things.

One quality of a typical addiction is that it is an appetite that grows with feeding. Nationally, our long-term oil consumption is growing. But that’s  due to population growth, which increases the number of motorists, and economic growth, which increases the supply of goods to be moved and expands opportunities to travel for business, education, and recreation. The long-term increase in “vehicle miles traveled” is not the result of some narcotic-like effect that gasoline consumption induces in motorists. It is a consequence of healthy development — more abundant life and more economic activity.

As my colleague Myron Ebell once said, nobody in America wakes in a cold sweat, sneaks out of the house late at night, and pays a road side pusher top off the tank with regular unleaded.



Round Rock Electricity September 9, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Well said. As soon as someone makes an extraordinary breakthrough regarding energy usage, and/or the necessity drives us that direction, we will dump the oil like a hot potato. Just wait,.. it’s going to be cool! I want to see it… It’s coming..

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