Wanted: A fossil-fuel Independence Day
It has been 246 years since America’s founders declared independence from Britain. In the Declaration of Independence, they cited 27 “repeated injuries and usurpations” that made British rule “absolute tyranny” over the 13 colonies at the time.
Sadly, the American people are still not free of tyranny. Now, it’s the “repeated injuries and usurpations” in our energy system. We are still addicted to the fossil fuels we began using more than 160 years ago, despite modern alternatives that are ubiquitous, clean, inexhaustible, less expensive and more democratic — as well as better for public health and the environment.
We are still waiting for the day America declares its independence from fossil fuels. Energy independence has been the goal of every president in modern times. We learned its importance during the oil crises of the 1970s. Fossil fuels are embedded in our lives. We are not in control when we depend on other countries for oil.
President George W. Bush declared in 2006 that “America is addicted to oil.” He was referring to foreign oil, although a drug is a drug no matter where it comes from. Bush and his successors thought the solution was to produce more of the domestic variety.
Domestic oil production nearly doubled during President Barack Obama’s administration. During his campaign, President Donald Trump promised, “we will accomplish a complete American energy independence.” Trump declared we’d achieved it after the United States became the world’s largest crude-oil producer — but he was wrong. America still imported oil, including some from Russia. And in reality, any nation’s oil crisis becomes every nation’s crisis in a global economy. No country will be completely independent of oil until all are.
Now, Americans are grappling with another oil crisis: Record prices at the pump, mainly because the oil industry has not resumed full production since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As energy analyst Pavel Molchanov of Raymond James explains, “Oil and gas companies do not want to drill more. They are under pressure from the financial community to pay more dividends, to do more share buybacks instead of the proverbial ‘drill baby drill.’”
This turmoil is not unusual in a world that relies on finite fuels. Oil shocks have preceded nearly every economic recession since World War II. It has caused international conflicts and wars. The Belfer Center at Harvard observes, “Between one-quarter and one-half of interstate wars since 1973 have been connected to one or more oil-related causal mechanisms. No other commodity has had such an impact on international security.”
Dangerous to breathe
Then there’s the effect fossil fuels have on the health of Americans, including children. The American Lung Association (ALA) says more than 137 million Americans, 40 percent of us, still live where breathing is unhealthy because of pollution from vehicles and power plants.
But the most dangerous pollutant is carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas primarily responsible for global warming. In addition to wildfires, droughts, bigger storms, floods and killer heat waves, global warming is making air pollution more deadly in general, according to the ALA.
Big Oil’s tyranny came to light in 2015 when the news organization Inside Climate News broke the story that Exxon (now ExxonMobil) knew about the link between fossil energy and climate change from its own scientific studies in the 1970s and 1980s. Exxon could have alerted everyone and contributed to solutions, but the company covered up its findings. Although the overwhelming majority of scientific papers on climate change concluded it was real, large oil companies and business organizations launched a campaign to undermine confidence in the science and to argue the government should do nothing until the science was “settled.”
Congress complied. Scientists briefed congressional committees in 1956, 1957, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1988 and several times since.
But Republicans allied with the oil lobby and turned climate change into a contested partisan issue. Meanwhile, Congress has continued providing fossil fuel companies with taxpayer subsidies of more than $20 billion annually. In addition, fossil fuels impose indirect costs on society and the environment, amounting to more than $662 billion in 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund.
One in three Americans report experiences with extreme weather in the last two years, but experts say we are not yet prepared. Deniers are still active on social media. Stop Funding Heat, a social media watchdog campaign, reported last year that it found as many as 1.36 million daily views of climate misinformation on Facebook.
International scientists say we have only eight years to make major progress in drawing down CO2 pollution, but CO2 levels are still climbing to record levels in the atmosphere. Renewable resources provided only 12.2 percent of total U.S. energy and 20.1 percent of our electricity last year. Nearly 61 percent of America’s energy still comes from fossil fuels.
American taxpayers are spending enormous amounts of money to help victims of extreme weather recover. Counting only the events that each caused more than $1 billion in damages, the cost has been more than $2 trillion since 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That’s more than $15,000 for every household in the country.
As a leading carbon polluter, the United States has a moral obligation (and a business opportunity) to be at the front of the pack in a global transition to clean energy. But the U.S. Energy Information Administration says if America’s energy policies remain the same as they were when 2022 began, coal will still provide 10 percent of our energy by 2050, fossil fuels will still dominate our energy mix and the amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere will remain far above the level necessary to stabilize the climate.
The carbon cartel
A cartel is “a group of independent market participants who collude with each other to improve their profits and dominate the market.” The longstanding collusion between the fossil energy industry and its supporters in Congress fits the definition. Members of Congress get help with reelection while oil and gas companies get taxpayer subsidies, access to public lands and enough votes in Congress to defeat every attempt to limit carbon pollution.
When cigarette smoking was the big public-health issue, researchers concluded, “the cigarette is the deadliest artifact in the history of human civilization.” Now, gas-guzzlers, coal power plants and methane-leaking pipelines have taken the title. One wonders how long the American people will tolerate the tyrannical rule of the carbon cartel.
William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.