ESSAY- Cap this: Why I feel oily, not vindicated

My saddest moment came a few weeks ago when I was proven absolutely correct.

As a former roughneck and present transportation demand management consultant, I'd been predicting for three years, since Chevron announced the huge deepwater oil strike in the Gulf of Mexico, that something would twist off and produce a blow-out at a depth that only a couple submersibles on the planet could reach.

"The Exxon Valdez will look like child's play," I've said a dozen times. "Remember, those rigs are floating in 7,000 feet of ocean, held there by gyroscopes and computers. They are not anchored on the bottom. "

Then, on April 22, the Hook published my month-old essay which highlighted the fact that all wonderful technologies eventually fail.

A prominent part of my writing concerned deepwater drilling and, on that same day as the issue, the Deepwater Horizon sank after a two-day fire. Today, at least 210,000 gallons of crude oil daily is rising from the Gulf floor to threaten the Louisiana coast and America's fishing industry.

"Don't you feel vindicated?" asked a friend who knows for how long and for how hard I've failed to change American driving behavior.

The answer is no.

I would love, instead, to be proven wrong. I would love to learn that American oil consumption isn't the issue that it obviously is. That oil spills and global warming are things of the past. That clean, sustainable transportation is here to stay and we've begun decreasing America's daily burn of 20 million barrels of oil. That our obesity and asthma epidemics have nothing to do with our driving 2.9 trillion miles annually. That the world is wrong and American foreign policy and overseas military excursions have no connection to petroleum.

That somehow wind and solar energy can miraculously be turned into auto fuel for our 251 million vehicles. That ethanol is not only saving the family farm but saving our accelerator feet as well. That hydrogen or electric cars are on our doorsteps and the congestion clogging our cities is suddenly disappearing.

I would love to join the rest of my fellow Americans, safely cocooned in a four-wheel state of denial, refusing to consider that our love affair with the automobile might collapse the world around us.

 I wish I could stop caring. But we're talking about the potential death of our planet, perhaps the death of our democracy, and at least the need to keep our sons and daughters fighting in the Middle East. Why doesn't major American media address this huge elephant in the room?

But today, after three weeks of coverage of what President Obama calls a "massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster," when I pick up my newspapers and check out the web, still missing from all the articles is why British Petroleum rented that risky deepwater rig to begin with. Without watching, I know the reason is not showing up on TV. 

Everyone– politicians, oil men, advertisers, media people– are terrified of "blaming the victim." Although 70 percent of every oil barrel becomes automobile fuel, the poor defenseless American driver who now faces higher gasoline costs certainly can't be blamed for creating the demand for ever more auto fuel. Those poor defenseless drivers– who, let me be clear, I am one– are both buyers of media and, most importantly, voters and the powers-that-be can't chance telling us the truth. Two presidential finalists, after all, proclaimed in 2008 that they'd suspend our meager 18.4 cent a gallon gas tax to provide us a little "needed" relief.

After the Exxon Valdez disaster that is still hurting Alaska, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which did some good things, but it capped private lawsuits against such spillers at $75 million. Why create a cap that now hinder Gulf tourism operators and fisheries in suing BP over $75 million? Because the powers know we can't live without oil.

Since I watched my friend and boss, Lonnie Light, die on an oil rig, however, during the first Arab oil embargo 35 years ago, the "externalities" (or costs unrecovered through price) of gasoline consumption have been clear. Not long after that, living on Galveston Bay and digging down into the sand with my son, I ran into a layer of black goo. Older neighbors said it was from WWII when German U-Boats enjoyed open season on tankers exiting the Houston Ship Channel.

In the more recent past, candidates from the political left, Jerry Brown, the right, H. Ross Perot and the dead-middle, Paul Tsongas, tried to address oil consumption via the economic first, best solution– higher gasoline taxes– and even Shell Oil and Ford Motor Company, citing the dwindling supply of easily accessible oil, pushed for 50-cent-a-gallon increases in federal fuel taxes. But those long-term, rational ideas eventually fell by our short-term, self-involved political wayside. 

At some point, Americans must realize that our driving without thought creates so many primary problems. We've tied our personalities to our wheels though generations of advertising and movies like Cars and, in the process, built our personal oil consumption to a level far beyond rationality. Walking, biking, and mass transit no longer fit most of our definitions of "transportation." 

Today, the average American uses 3,375 barrels of oil in his 75-year lifetime, triple what a Japanese citizen uses and 14 times a Chinese person primarily because 91 percent of our trips are in personal cars. American vehicles, furthermore, emit 45 percent of the entire world's automotive carbon dioxide. 

Today, our default position to get anywhere, everywhere– and sometimes nowhere– is "key in ignition." 

Let's finally admit that our "oil man" president went to Iraq partially to secure a supply of petrol, and remember that our "green" president is today building more highways after giving away tight tax dollars to sell more cars. But the "Cash4Clunkers" program, in the end, destroyed 690,000 still good vehicles– an environmental disaster– for the gain of point six miles per gallon. nod seven years after our soldiers first set foot in Iraq, petroleum still isn't flowing freely from Iraqi fields. 

But it is flowing freely from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. 

The best description of American political leadership is "finding out which way the parade is going and getting in front," so until the mainstream media take responsibility and begin suggesting that parade change direction, our sons and daughters will continue to fight in the Middle East, and our fish and fowl will continue to face the black gold soaking our coasts.

As the old Pogo cartoon put it years ago, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."


A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a roughneck, Randy Salzman would have preferred that his prediction not come true.