Still Crazy After All These Years


photo of a man in a mountain landscape

It was 35 years ago that I learned, first-hand, about the negative externalities of American driving. My friend and boss, Lonnie Light, and I were working in the West Texas oil patch when we had to go in the hole to make a routine replacement of a Hughes tool bit we were using to drill a well. That’s when the accident happened. The hydraulic braking system, which theoretically equalized the weight of the 28,000 feet of drill string, didn’t perform right and the traveling blocks fell over the small area where the driller stands, crushing Lonnie to death. We were back on bottom, the rotary table spinning ever deeper into our planet, when Exeter Drilling’s toolpusher told us four remaining roughnecks that Lonnie’s dogged grip on the drawworks brake probably saved our lives. The ambulance carrying Lonnie’s body was still in view, its lights flashing across the sagebrush towards Odessa, Texas.

The next night I didn’t return to the rig – though I would later work on shallow holes in Colorado and Wyoming. This was only a few years after the first Earth Day and almost everyone was talking about pollution, the Arab oil embargo, the doubling of gasoline prices, and how the value of V-8 station wagons was long past. It looked like America was coming to grips with our oil consumption.

In the year since BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, I’ve relived that moment and wished it were ancient history. But of course it’s not. We’re still failing to reduce the 2.9 trillion miles we drive annually and ignoring the costs that imposes on society. Costs such as the environmental damage from the Deepwater spill, our need to fight in the Middle East, the carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere, our freeway congestion, and growing childhood obesity. In the economic world, those costs are called “externalities.” The mainstream media doesn’t have a word for them, and has yet to connect the costs – including the deaths of people like Lonnie – to America’s drive-first transportation paradigm.

Although the Associated Press news editor’s poll declared the BP disaster the biggest story of 2010, much of the media still doesn’t underline the fact that we burn over half of America’s 20 million-barrel-a-day oil consumption in automobile fuel tanks. The media did an admirable job covering the drama of the BP blowout and the debacle of the “cleanup,” but it completely failed to explore the root causes of the problem. Until the media begins connecting the dots, we, the people – like addicts everywhere – keep hoping that somehow technology, or events, or something besides our own responsibility will save us. As the cartoon Pogo once put it: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

For a dozen reasons Americans must learn to conserve oil. Perhaps part of the problem is that we don’t know those reasons. Even during the extensive mainstream coverage of global warming legislation, the Deepwater spill, and the Iraq War, the media have failed to remind us that American cars and trucks produce almost half of the world’s automotive CO2. We haven’t learned that 69 percent of every barrel of oil becomes auto fuel or that we import $620,000 of oil every minute. We haven’t learned that with 2.7 percent of world oil reserves, Americans use 26 percent of its oil production, most of it in our cars, trucks, and SUVs. We don’t know that transportation is the largest and fastest growing generator of greenhouse emissions – and of oil consumption – in the American economy.

It’s not as if media aren’t aware of some of the sensible ideas for breaking our oil habit. Both Ford Motor Company and Shell Oil are on the record supporting the economic “first-best” solution – a gasoline tax. Phase in a gas tax over a decade, the companies suggested years ago, and American manufacturers could compete in the global market for energy efficiency. Think long-term with a rational gasoline taxing policy and we’ll break our dependence on oil from the Middle East – and not have to foul the waters a mile below the ocean’s surface, or the soil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But until something like that comes to pass – until our mainstream media connect driving with its social and environmental externalities – we will undergo wars and rumors of wars and spills and rumors of spills. And we will suffer more casualties, like the 11 men who died on the Deepwater Horizon. Like Lonnie. Leaving me to wonder if they died in vain.

Randy Salzman is a former oilfield roughneck and college journalism professor and, at present, tries to convince Americans to curtail our personal oil consumption.

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