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Guestwords: On Ukraine, Use Less Oil

Thu, 04/14/2022 - 10:01

The images from Ukraine are almost too much to bear — a pregnant woman and her baby beside a bombed-out maternity shelter, families trying to sustain themselves with the water in their radiators. The very fount of life is being snuffed by a singular, demonic vision played out in real time. But the aimless, unfounded conflict grinds on and the images keep coming, even at the price of journalists whose own lives are in peril. As sentient humans 5,000 miles away, what are we to do with all this? What is an appropriate response? 

Yes, there is the making of yellow and blue ribbons and the color coordination of outfits and yard signs. There is prayer and meditation and money, and these all can mean something. There are the geopolitical opinions about Eastern Europe we spray into the ether. But if our interest is to reduce the strain upon our interdependent world amid this rippling conflict, it’s worth considering a more mundane response: using less oil. 

In 2021, Russian oil and other petroleum products made up about 8 percent of U.S. energy imports. Now, President Biden has vowed to ban all this. But oil is fungible. If it doesn’t come from the current bad guy nation, it may well come from places that, as the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said, “may have engaged in unsavory actions in the past,” like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran. 

Still, the larger political specter remains the backlash from higher gas prices. As a hedge, the president has announced we will draw one million barrels of oil a day for 180 days from the Strategic Petroleum Preserve. But this represents only 5 percent of what Americans consume. Scott Sheffield, chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources in Texas, calls it a Band-Aid: “It will lower the oil price a little and encourage more demand.” 

To make up for this shortfall, many point to this as a moment to double down on domestic energy production. At an early March news conference, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham declared, “If the Ukrainians can stand up to a tank, if a grandmother can get a rifle, surely to God, we can produce more oil and gas.” But what exactly does this mean? And where does this oil and gas come from? 

Let’s consider tar sands, which Senator Graham has touted as a “national treasure for Canada and the United States” that should be developed “full speed ahead.” These deposits of sand, clay, water, and sticky black bitumen lie largely beneath Alberta’s boreal forest — home to bears, wolves, nesting migratory birds, and First Nation communities, where trees and bogs capture vast amounts of climate-changing carbon pollution. Alchemizing this sludge into usable fuel requires 50-foot-tall, diesel-powered Caterpillar 797 heavy haulers, four times the amount of water needed to produce oil from conventional reserves, pools of toxic waste, and other reasons why it’s reliably 70 degrees in New York in March. 

Then again, there’s the option of drilling three miles beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or seven miles down into the Tiber Oil Field in the Gulf of Mexico, near Deepwater Horizon. The cartoon-chronicled gusher wells of the Texas plains are long gone. OPEC’s secretary general, Mohammad Barkindo, said in March, “There is no capacity in the world” that could replace Russian output. “We have no control over current events, geopolitics, and this is dictating the pace of the market.”

The national average price of midgrade gas is now over $4.50 a gallon. But aside from Mexico, which doesn’t have a gas tax, we pay the least in the world — 56 cents a gallon, compared to the global average of $2.24. This doesn’t even pay for the cost of U.S. road and bridge maintenance — the original intention of the gas tax — let alone for the externalities of public health. 

With fewer places to go during Covid’s early stages in 2020, the U.S. reduced its CO2 emissions by nearly 13 percent. The high school students I teach were able to scrounge some optimism from this, to see an opening for meaningful policy change. But in 2021, U.S. motorists drove 11.2 percent more, nearly erasing any climate-conscious progress. To be clear, if we are to meet the United Nations goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, we would need to cut carbon emissions 7.6 percent progressively each year for the next decade. 

Now we have another ripe moment to pause and consider this nihilistic dependence on fossil fuel, the consequences of which are clearly outlined in the latest climate report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But all around us the leaf blowers blare, people are jetting off to tropical spring break locales, and single-occupancy vehicles trundle along Route 27. 

These days, when images of sacrifice are as visceral as they’ve ever been, why is it we’re so unwilling to compromise on this front? Why overlook the energy independence that comes from simple conservation? Why not allow our own government to be nimbler by reducing the stress we put upon it? 


Tim Donahue teaches high school English in New York City and writes about climate change, education, and endurance sports. He formerly had a house at Lazy Point, Amagansett.


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