Swimming in Oil

The fish, famously, doesn’t know it swims in water. The line could also describe our relationship to fossil fuels. It’s commonly said that our reliance on oil and gas resembles a drug addiction, yet the pathology goes much deeper than that. We’re all but blind to the oil around us. I think you know what I mean: The nonchalance with which we go about our lives, unnoticing the daily amenities afforded to us by the captured energy of a younger sun. Food shipped to our tables by bunker fuel and diesel. The tea kettle whistling thanks to fracking. Luxuries – a climate-controlled carapace that can take you wherever you want at 65 miles an hour! – mistaken for necessities. Once you start paying attention to the oil that fuels our lifestyles, the awareness becomes dizzying.

At the consumption end, it’s easy to forget the industrial magic of fossil fuels. After all, the stuff came from somewhere else, probably a grimy sacrifice zone far away from the bright lights of our Dot-Com Gilded Age. But of course there are people who live in those sacrifice zones, whose homes and playgrounds are cheek by jowl to gas derricks and pumpjacks. Weirdly enough, one such place is that ultimate factory of illusions, the City of Angels.

As James William Gibson reminds us in his exploration of Los Angeles’s oily past and present (“L.A. Underground”): “Behind the beauty and glitz, the city and county of Los Angeles functions as a giant oil field and processing facility.” In L.A. County, Gibson reports, there are 3,700 active fossil fuel wells, 2,000 miles of oil pipelines, 681 miles of large-bore gas pipelines, and 10 oil refineries. Much of this infrastructure has been around so long that, to many Angelenos, “oil is normal.”

In recent years, however, LA residents have begun to push back against the energy industry as concerns grow about the public health impacts of “advanced recovery technologies” such as hydraulic fracturing and well acidizing. Grassroots activists are trying to pull the veil away from urban oil, the first step, they believe, toward eventually shutting it all down.

I wish them the best of luck – and I hope they watch their backs. As Journal contributing editor Adam Federman reports (“Power Play”), oil and gas firms and law enforcement agencies are closely watching, and sometimes infiltrating, citizens groups pushing for a clean energy economy. “The fossil fuel industry is now an economic behemoth firmly hitched to the national security state,” Federman writes. And yet, as Federman points out, “The threat to the industry is existential and economic, not extremist.” While private and government security personnel worry about the phantom menace of vandalism and industrial sabotage, environmental activists are focused on a much bigger goal: putting the whole industry out of business.

The Carbon Barons’ paranoia might be misdirected, but they do, in fact, have good reason to be worried. A growing number of people are opening their eyes, looking around, and beginning to ask tough questions about what exactly we’re all swimming in.

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