I see it and hear it again and again when people talk about the protests going on right now in North Dakota. How can the people there be so anti-oil when they drive gas guzzling cars and trucks?
There are a ton of resources out there about the pipeline being built from North Dakota to Illinois, so I won't rehash here the history or the ongoing protests surrounding it. Google Dakota Access Pipeline if you want to read up.
This post is to address some of the arguments against the protest and the water protectors fighting big oil. The opening question seems to be justification for many to dismiss this as just another bunch of hypocrites not understanding our apparent need for more pipelines. But I believe it goes deeper than what they are able to see.
Oil and Coal are America's heroin. We are addicted to it. Our cars run on it, our power plants run on it. We use oil in almost everything, because for a long time it has been available, easy, and cheap. Like heroin, we addicts know where to get it, but we don't know how to live without it. Like heroin, our continued abuse of it will eventually kill us. Unlike heroin, there is very little help available to help us quit.
The oil companies argue that there are no good alternatives to oil. That switching to renewables would cost jobs and ruin our economy. They argue that pipelines are the safest way to transport oil, far safer than by truck or by train. Therefore, more pipelines are needed to keep the price of oil down for us users. Let's take these one at a time.
No Viable Alternatives
Elon Musk put out a video when he introduced the Tesla Power Wall that included a graphic showing how rapidly CO2 levels are rising.
Now, I'm going out on a limb here and saying that most people reading this believe in science and climate change. As such, facts are not in dispute that this current warming trend is man-made, and we are crossing new and awful thresholds all the time heading towards some really bad things. If you are someone that believes this is a "natural cycle", or a Chinese conspiracy, or thinks that God will solve it, then you'll need to come back when reality sets in, because this post is not for you.
Musk shows how little area is needed to convert ALL of the US electrical needs to solar. But mostly as an aside to promote his Power Wall. It's a shockingly small area, and I'd bet that spreading it out across the country, we could easily fit it on the tops of flat buildings like Wal-Marts and shopping malls.
What struck me about this is that we have so many good places to put solar panels, yet we don't. Why?
Money and Short Term Vision.
My family recently had a solar panel company do an assessment of our house to determine what it would take to replace our electricity needs with solar. Turns out that if we use the equity we've built up in our home for the last ten years we've lived there, we could pay for a nice solar array that would produce enough for our house, and maybe even more that would be fed back into the grid.
But it is "expensive" when looked at as a stand alone cost. A 10kWh system can run between $30,000 - $50,000. That's a ton of money to most people. That's an unrealistic goal for us, to come up with that amount for a solar array. But then I shifted my thinking a little bit.
We already budget money for our electricity bill. That isn't going to change throughout our lives. We'll always use electricity. But if we had a solar array that provides all of our electrical needs, then the money we have budgeted for electricity could just as easily go toward paying off the solar array. The math for us worked out to having our array paid for within ten years. After that, we would actually get paid for producing electricity.
Paid. For. It.
Unfortunately for us, the best place for an array would be in our front yard garden, and the city has an ordinance against building structures in your front yard. Our rooftop will work, but will only supply 60% of our current usage. But like my son says, "It's better than 0%."
Our community has wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric power, yet 78% of our electricity still comes from coal fired and diesel fuel powered plants. We pay for the coal and diesel shipped to our factories to burn. A cost that would be eliminated transitioning to solar. Within ten years, our entire community could be solar powered, and have extremely low electricity costs as well. Not only can we do better environmentally, but we can do better financially by switching to solar.
The technology exists for electric automobiles. "But the range is too short!" Comes the opposition. But the technology also exists for solar roadways that could continuously recharge electric vehicles as the drove. That technology would also add power into the grid, reducing or removing our dependence on fossil fuel powered vehicles. The thing holding us back?
Money and Short Term Vision again. It would take years, decades perhaps to switch our current vehicle fleet to EV's, our asphalt roads to solar, our electricity grids to benefit from solar panels and roadways. It would be hard work, and too many politicians these days are scared of change because of the short term vision of their constituents. Suggesting short term pain for long term results doesn't resonate with the majority yet. Until it does, change will be slow and hard. But let's move on to the next argument from oil...
Switching to renewables would cost jobs and ruin the economy.
We currently have a fossil fuel based economy. Stoping all production and usage tomorrow would indeed cost jobs and throw a HUGE wrench into the economy. But that's not what we are talking about here, is it? What if, as we phased out oil jobs in the future, we increased jobs in solar panel production and installation? What if, instead of needing workers to lay oil pipelines and drill fracking wells, we needed workers to transition communities from oil reliance to solar power and install and maintain solar roads? Maintenance workers, power plant workers, linemen and women. All still required in a renewable based economy. We would lose jobs in oil production, sure. But we'd not lose ALL oil jobs because - let's face it - we'll never go to ZERO oil usage. But we would gain jobs in other areas. The job market changes with technology. It always has, and always will. Transition can be hard, but we've done it before.
As for the economy, I suspect a transition period would be much the same as when we transitioned from actual horse powered vehicles to fossil fuel vehicles. Our reliance on foreign oil would disappear, leaving us less beholden to the Middle East, Venesuela, and other sketchy oil producing countries for our needs here in the US. We would keep domestic production low so we always have a ready supply of oil for uses other than electricity and running our ground vehicles. Average citizens would pay significantly less in electricity bills, thereby increasing their discretionary spending budgets and growing the economy. It's not like we've always been a fossil fuel based economy. We had the courage to change many times in our countries history. Now is another one of those times.
Pipelines are the safest way to transport oil, safer than trucks or trains.
In this, the oil companies are right! Statistically speaking, it is safer transporting oil through a pipeline than by truck or train overland. But here's where their own arguments come back to shoot them in the foot.
Pipelines create jobs when being built. After that, it takes far, far fewer employees to get the oil from point A to point B. This takes jobs from truck drivers and all of their support crews. Mechanics, dispatchers, yard men, etc. All losing jobs. It also takes jobs from the train industry. Jobs gone means incomes gone equals economic damage. Pipelines are inherently bad for the job market. But do you know who does profit from this "safer" method? Oil companies. Billionaires who want even more money in their pockets.
As for safer... "safer" doesn't mean safe. Oil Pipeline leaks are a daily occurance. From little, hundred gallon leaks, to the "newsworthy" several hundred thousand gallon kind. They happen all the time. They pollute the environment, our drinking water, our crop land. But the oil companies want you to believe they're safer than overland shipping.
This is like arguing, like junkies do, that using clean needles is safer than sharing needles. That is true, but you're still addicted to the junk. It's more efficient to mainline drugs rather than smoke them or ingest them, too. But that won't stop it from killing you.
We need more pipelines to keep the cost of oil down.
No. No we don't. Because we can't maintain our addiction to oil and have a livable planet. It really is that simple. Stay addicted and we all die.
All of their arguments are designed to keep the general public blissfully ignorant of the real problem.
That is - our addiction to fossil fuels.
So, why do we drive our gas burning pollutionmobiles to protests?
Because that is what we have to work with right now. Poor people can't afford electric cars. Heck, the shrinking middle class can't really afford them yet, either. Their time is coming, but slowly. Slowly. Because the fossil fuel industry is doing everything in it's power to make as much money for themselves as they can before the world wakes up. Until then, we are pretty much forced to drive gas fueled cars, even to protest the very thing that fuels them. Because, like any addict can tell you, getting hooked is easy. The infrastructure is in place to support fossil fuel based cars. It's easy. We can buy fossil fuel cars for cheap. It's easy. We have been addicted to fossil fuels for so long, that we can't see past our oil high to the danger our addiction is leading us towards. They will rely on our collective belief that transitioning to renewables is too expensive, too difficult. They will continue to try and keep renewables expensive and difficult, because to do otherwise would decrease their profits.
Why would a drug dealer pay for an addict to get treatment? Why would an oil company pay for renewables? Same answer.
According to science, our addiction will continue to heat up the planet. It will change ecosystems, making it more and more difficult to grow or crops, have clean water to drink, clean air to breathe. Ignorance tells us that status quo is just fine. After all, if it was good enough for our parents and grandparents, it's good enough for us. Right? Except it isn't anymore. Technology has made it possible to clean ourselves up. Slow down our addiction fueled destruction. Technology has also invalidated our pleas of ignorance. The evidence is overwhelming, and easy to find with a simple Google search.
Like getting clean from any addiction though, it will take time. It will be hard. There will have to be lifestyle changes. Habit changes. We won't want to do it most days, because it won't be what we're accustomed to - easy. There will always be those voices in our communal head telling us we NEED the drug. We can't function without the drug. Life is so much easier with the drug. We will have setbacks along the way. Progress will be slow and challenging.
But what we really NEED is to start. We NEED to look farther into the future than our oil buzz. We NEED to start transitioning to something better, rather than keep feeding our addiction. We need to get rid of the enablers that tell us we can have more "sweet, light" black heroin if we just stay quiet and let them abuse us a few more times. Their product is getting more expensive, the quality is going down, and they know it. They know it's a very limited resource and they'll eventually run out, but like any good dealer, they'll keep us hooked to make maximum profits.
It's time to see past our short term vision. It's time to stop worrying about the cost, because it will cost more in the future to fix the problems we are continuing to cause today. It's time to suck it up and do the hard work. Because if we leave it to our children and grandchildren, then it will be too late.