Political pollution: The true cost of petroleum

Despite all the well-reasoned arguments and scientific studies, the decades of debate and the disappearing ice caps, the fate of gas conservation seems to rise and falls with the thermometer. For much of the public, sweltering summers and balmy winters offer evidence of global warming, while chilly summers and frigid winters suggest that ozone depletion, greenhouse gases, and smog are not as important as various climatologists and Al Gore would have us believe.

Ironically, conservation's Achilles' heel comes from its staunchest defenders. The environmentalism movement has put most of its eggs in the global warming basket, pushing the notion that the dangers of petroleum consumption can be more or less boiled down to climate change. Of course, if global warming isn't really happening, or if climate change can be reversed -- as a recent Scientific American article suggests -- then the argument against Hummers falls apart, suggesting that humanity can continue its locust-like consumption of resources.
But what if global warming is the least of our petro-worries? The intense focus on the negative effects of fuel exhaust ignores the other end of the equation. To put it bluntly, petroleum is, at the present time, probably the most effective tool for the creation of concentrated wealth on the planet. A finite, incredibly valuable resource, it pretty much guarantees that whoever controls it will become wealthy and powerful. All too often, this wealth and power translate into repressive politics and national stagnation.

A prime example of this is Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez has managed to parlay populism and petroleum into policies that nationalize foreign-owned properties, undermine human rights, and have laid the groundwork for his own permanent dictatorship. Similarly, Russia's Vladimir Putin has used his stranglehold on the nation's petroleum reserves as a wedge to ensure that Western countries stood by quietly as he invaded and brutalized Georgia. Meanwhile, opponents to Putin's regime have been disappearing, sometimes with the help of Cold War-era tricks like the Polonium-210 poisoning of writer Alexander Litvinenko.

In both cases, apart from the occasional strongly-worded denunciation, the Western world has stood by and watched impotently as petro-dictators have dismantled the tools of democracy and free trade.

As repulsive as the tales of Russia and Venezuela (and Nigeria, and Iran, and Iraq, and so on) are, one could argue that Saudi Arabia offers the best example of the slippery relationship between oil and democracy. While the country's abuse of its female citizen is brutal and well-documented, few have bothered to ask why the country embraces Wahhabism, a particularly strict form of Islam, especially when its rulers are known for their hedonistic lifestyles.

The answer is simple: while Saudi Arabia's seemingly-infinite oil wealth has enabled the House of Saud to spend the last few decades living in sybaritic bliss, the family's excesses have made it very susceptible to a theology-based coup. However, unlike the Shah of Iran, the Sauds have been prescient enough to bribe their loudest critics. As long as the country pours money into radical madrassas and the country's theological police are given free rein, the Sauds will continue to hold power and Saudi Arabia will remain relatively stable.

And if the petrodollars flowing from American gas stations find their way into the hands of Al Quaeda -- as the bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations determined in 2002 -- then far be it for America's SUV-loving media to take a close look.

Lest the reader think that the anti-democratic force of oil is only a consideration overseas, it might be worth considering the nature of America's complex relationship with black gold. While Alaska's permanent fund guarantees that its residents all receive a portion of oil revenues, the sad fact is that oil companies all too often use price manipulation and intense governmental lobbying to ensure that they receive an outsized piece of the political pie. Whether the issue at hand is the fact that twenty years of legal wrangling enabled Exxon to walk away from the Valdez disaster with a slap on the wrist, or the fact that oil companies recently reaped massive tax breaks and subsidies while declaring record profits, it often seems like the interactions between Big Petroleum and the government are not always in the best interests of the public. Of course, given that the last President and Vice President were both oil men, their warmth toward their former industry is somewhat understandable.

And what of the next generation of fuels? Well, the current front-runner in the biofuel race is corn, America's most heavily-subsidized, politically-connected agricultural product. Most experts agree that corn ethanol is environmentally dangerous and doesn't offer a compelling alternative to petroleum, leaving one to wonder how it became the most aggressively pursued petroleum alternative.

It doesn't have to be this way: there are more effective biofuel alternatives, including sweet potatoes, switchgrass, and even organic waste. While the intense focus upon corn biofuels has slowed growth in these other arenas, it is worth remembering that several tantalizing fuel options remain within reach.

The solution to America's energy problems does not lie in any single solution, but rather in a wide collection of competing initiatives. With multiple biofuel alternatives fighting for market share in a robust marketplace, it will be impossible for any single fuel source to replace oil's current monopoly on America's gas tanks and wallets. Of course, this would require policymakers and politicians who are willing to look beyond lobbyists to a future that supports multiple forms of ethanol production. On the other end, it would also require a populace that is willing to get behind a serious conservation initiative. With these two factors, however, it would be possible to ensure that the anti-democratic dangers of America's petroleum addiction don't get replicated for a new generation. In the end, the measure of America's success won't be the thermometer, but rather its freedom to voice -- and stand behind -- its ideals.
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