The Take

Might as well face it, you're addicted to oil

Might as well face it, you're addicted to oil

Posting in Energy

America, we need to talk. It's time to face your dependence and begin the recovery process.

America, we need to talk.

Have a seat.

Remember when President George W. Bush told you seven years ago that you're addicted to oil?

Well, you're still addicted, and it's clear that many of President Bush's prescriptions for breaking that addiction -- "zero-emission coal-fired plants", nuclear energy, next-generation biofuels, and hydrogen -- have gone nowhere. Even now, they remain part of President Barack Obama's climate plan. We are no closer to "moving beyond a petroleum-based economy" now than we were in 2006.

It's time to get serious about your problem. So here's a little tough love.

Admit you have a problem

Your addiction is getting worse, even if you've cut back a little on your use.

You consumed 2 million barrels a day (about 10 percent) less oil in 2012 than you did in 2006, but your gasoline consumption is down just 0.5 million barrels a day. And that decrease is mainly because you can't afford it in a recession, not because you're deliberately finding ways to use less. You're just driving less, in an older vehicle. You've still got a fleet of around 240 million cars and light trucks on the road with an average fuel efficiency of 22.5 miles per gallon (mpg). New cars average 23.8 mpg on a sales-weighted basis. That new 54.5 mpg federal standard is great, but it doesn't cure your problem.

The market for hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs) is growing, but it still has very little share. As long as you keep buying millions of trucks per year that get 22 mpg, you've still got a huge problem.

Stop blaming others for your addiction

It’s easier to point fingers at someone else than to face your addiction. But you know who has the real problem.

It's not the fault of the oil companies or the car companies or even Congress that you're addicted. Sure, they didn't help, just as ads for liquor don't help keep you off the bottle. And sure, you had a tough childhood, growing up in a time when people were building roads and suburbs all over the place with no thought for how that architecture might work in an era of constrained oil supply and high prices.

But nobody made you live 50 miles away from your work, or put the kids in activities scattered all over town, or buy that inefficient vehicle. It's your problem now. Nobody else's. Deep down, you know that's true.

Who's in control here? You, or the gasoline? You, or society? You are not powerless over your addiction. You make a choice every time you buy a car, get behind the wheel, get on a plane, and pick a place to live or work. You make a choice every time you vote for or against roads, buses and trains.

Acknowledge the cost of your addiction

Gasoline prices will never fall back under $3, because the cost of new oil from activities like hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and tar sands production is so high.

Americans spent $434 billion last year on imported oil. That's $1.2 billion dollars a day.

In addition, you're spending somewhere between $13 billion and $143 billion a year in military costs to protect U.S. oil interests in the Persian Gulf, alone. You spend yet more to protect them in Africa, South America and anywhere else there is oil.

There are health costs: Many of your children have asthma because of pollution from cars and coal-fired power plants. Social costs. Climate change costs. Environmental destruction costs, not from just well blowouts, but from habitat loss and many other things. All kinds of hidden costs. A rough back-of-the-napkin analysis I did in 2007 found that the true cost of your oil could approach be in the range of $12.5 trillion a year (it would be even higher today). That's nearly equivalent to America's gross domestic product (GDP), so it's probably an overestimate.

Due to a lack of reliable data, it's almost impossible to know the right number. But that doesn't even matter. It's huge. It's like spending every dollar you make on drink.

That is part of the reason why you've got money troubles. A big part. You will never get your balance sheet straightened out until you stop using oil.

Stop denying it

Fracking has brought a temporary new bump in U.S. oil and gas production, but it's already showing signs of slowing down. Tar sands aren't a solution either; they're the oil junkie's last fix.

These marginal sources of oil don't cure your addiction; they extend it.

You are the world's biggest oil junkie, by far. Nobody else consumes roughly one-fifth of the planet's oil supply. Increasing your domestic supply does not curb your consumption. You can make a big show of becoming "energy independent" some day, on a net British thermal unit (BTU) basis, by exporting more coal, gasoline and diesel, but that isn't fooling anybody. You're still the largest oil consumer.

Forget about miracle energy cures. They are fantasies, the hallucinations of an addict in withdrawal. They aren't real. The only real solutions are difficult and require some sacrifice.

Stop kidding yourself that global warming isn't happening or that isn't happening because of your consumption of fossil fuels. You have been the main contributor of carbon dioxide emissions for decades. You have released carbon that took nature many millions of years to sequester, and pumped it into the atmosphere in about 150 years. Don't even try to pretend that hasn't affected the climate.

Get off the sauce

You can't actually stop using oil. It is embedded in everything you buy, everything you use, and everything you eat. If you tried to go cold-turkey, everything would grind to an immediate halt. Your fear of that -- eating shoe leather in the dark -- is what keeps you in denial. But it doesn't have to be that way.

You can do your part.

You can choose modes of transportation that use less -- or no -- oil. You can drive EVs that charge up with your own rooftop solar arrays. You can get around on bicycles and use public transportation. You can carpool. You can take a train and build new rail systems, like California's high-speed rail. (But no, you can't bet on Elon Musk's "Hyperloop," because no one is planning to build it.) You can move to a place that will let you walk to work.

Make amends to those you have harmed

Your addiction has caused a great deal of harm and suffering, not just at home, but in other countries.

You're a big part of the reason why rising sea levels threaten to swamp populations from the Marshall Islands to Miami.

Your addiction has led to wars that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. It has fomented the terrorism that has made surveillance and pat-downs part of your everyday experience. It has caused the destruction of vast areas of boreal forest in Alberta, and the contamination of lands and waters in dozens of countries around the world. It has probably contributed to habitat loss and species extinction. It has contaminated the air that you and everyone you know breathes.

You have many people, places and species to make amends with. There's no time like the present to get started.

Make a commitment and take responsibility

It's time for you to take responsibility for your oil addiction and do something about it, instead of just hoping that you can continue to be a high-functioning addict.

Saudi Arabia, the world's No. 1 or No. 2 oil producer depending on the year, which enjoys the cheapest domestic oil on the planet, is building a $22 billion metro to cut its oil use. You are the world's largest oil importer (although you're about to be the second largest, after China), and the cost of producing your oil is among the highest in the world. Should you not do at least as much as Saudi Arabia to curb your addiction?

You need to do much more than you have done to get your life under control again. You need to think about how to get 240 million cars and light trucks off the road, permanently. Merely cutting back on your use a little through a few more efficient vehicles each year isn't enough. You need to make some big commitments, and give up on some cherished dreams and beliefs. It's going to take real courage to look yourself in the mirror and make those changes, but you really don't have a choice. You're either going to get a grip, or your addiction is going to kill you.

The good news is: If you resolve to do something about it, you can recover from your addiction, bit by bit, year by year. As you do, you'll discover a better you inside: One that's happier, healthier, able to help others cure their addictions, and able to start repairing the damage you've done. But you have to commit to it. Your days of inaction, denial and blaming others have to stop.

You can do this, America. Let's start on the long road to recovery, individually and collectively. Starting now.

Thanks to Robert Rapier for a little inspiration.

Photo: snowlepard/Flickr

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Chris Nelder

Columnist (Energy)

Chris Nelder is an energy analyst and consultant who has written about energy and investing for more than a decade. He is the author of two books on energy and investing, Profit from the Peak and Investing in Renewable Energy, and has appeared on BBC TV, Fox Business, CNN national radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp., CBS radio and France 24. He is based in California. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure