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As our love affair with the automobile is on the verge of perhaps destroying our planet, we Americans are quick to blame someone else.



Arctic Ocean lease sales are on hold. Engineers are tinkering toward another Rube Goldberg multimillion-dollar effort. The president laments his decision to open the East Coast to off-shore oil production. Owners, renters and manufacturers of offshore rigs and undersea blow-out preventers are hiring lobbyists and pointing fingers.

Congressmen are introducing bills to counteract laws they put in place after the last major oil disaster. Gulf of Mexico fishermen are wondering whether they'll ever work again. The Sierra Club is sending fundraising pitches and lawyers are congregating, legal pads and contingency fees at the ready.

It's an entirely predictable American aftermath to an entirely predictable American disaster.

Regardless of what caused the Deepwater Horizon to sink and at least 210,000 gallons of oil daily to rise through the Gulf of Mexico, senators and congressmen are chastising BP, Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron. Perhaps these companies deserve blame, but it's been 37 years since the Arabs told us clearly that oil was a weapon that they would use against the West; 21 years since the Exxon Valdez; 19 years since the first Gulf War; a half-dozen years since greenhouse emissions became associated with global warming. And yet the American government still isn't addressing the real economic solution for our 20-million-barrel-a-day oil habit: a fuel tax high enough to cajole Americans into reconsidering our dangerous addiction to cars, the ability to drive anywhere, everywhere — and often — nowhere. 

As our love affair with the automobile is on the verge of perhaps destroying our planet and our democracy, we Americans — like our congressmen — are quick to seek someone else to blame.

The bottom line is that BP, Exxon, Chevron and the other oil producers are simply supplying Americans the gasoline and diesel they demand. Consider: The value of the deepwater Gulf oil is high enough that BP was willing to rent the Deepwater Horizon from Transocean for $500,000 a day — or $15 million a month — while facing the potential of cleanup costs for any accident as large, or larger, than the $3.4 billion Exxon paid after the Exxon Valdez spill.

It's our demand for the freedom, the convenience and the personality of our personal vehicles that's the root of these kinds of environmental and economic disasters. If we were driving intelligently, rather than habitually, then BP might have succeeded in going beyond petroleum as its ads said earlier this decade.

President Bush was right. We Americans are “addicted to oil,” and like any addict we'll do anything to get it, even though much, if not most, of our addiction does next to nothing for our economy. With 69 percent of our 20 million barrel-a-day habit becoming auto fuel and America's meager petroleum reserves dwindling rapidly, it's no wonder President Bush tried to secure the Iraqi oil fields.

And it's no wonder the majors jumped on the Gulf deepwater strike.

As a nation we keep lassoing something — anything — beyond reasonable consumption as the solution to our oil addiction, but these new technologies and policies continually fail to live up to their billing. Besides deepwater production, we've considered ethanol, natural gas, hybrid cars, corporate average fuel economy standards, conquest in the Middle East, stimulus dollars, hydrogen vehicles, and the cash for clunkers program.

Electric cars are our latest highly praised solution, but even if every car sold was electric, it would still take 20 years to replace the 251 million cars and trucks we have clogging our roadways. And the roadways would still be clogged while we'd need dozens more coal-fired power plants to generate the power to replace 200 million gallons of auto fuel. According to the Boston Consulting Group, Uncle Sam's $7,500 sales subsidy would need to continue and oil prices would need to climb to $375 a barrel to make electric cars a rational economic purchase for most Americans. 

Meanwhile, Nissan has brilliantly undercut GM's Volt by greatly underpricing its Leaf. Japan, with some of the highest gasoline taxes in the world, has a 128-million-person test market for electric vehicles and can subsidize losses on every American sale to prevent GM from gaining a foothold in the electric-car market. Many analysts argue that Toyota did just that with the Prius.

For electric vehicles to save us, the Boston Consulting Group's research indicates it would require a 210-percent increase in gasoline taxes or a much higher federal subsidy. The electric car technological trap — and the Obama administration is subsidizing electric cars to the tune of $4.2 billion — will be, in the end, as useless as all the other American psychological traps have been.

Let's recap:

Cash for clunkers destroyed 690,000 still good vehicles — an environmental disaster itself — while raising, according to a University of Michigan study, average fuel efficiency less than a mile per gallon.

Ethanol decreases gas mileage, drives up food prices, and can't be transferred via pipeline because corn-based alcohol gums up valves. With corn grown in Iowa and the refineries on the coasts, it takes, therefore, about four gallons of fuel to produce and mix five gallons of ethanol.

Natural gas tanks take up most vehicle's cargo space because it has to be pressurized to keep as liquid fuel.

Stimulus dollars put $28 billion into highways and $8 billion into mass transit with the pittance of $400 million going to bicycle and pedestrian transportation. About 80 percent of all federal, state and local annual transportation spending is still for roads.

The bottom line is that, as a nation, we've psychologically trapped our thinking into believing there's some magic technological or governmental pill to allow us to drive without awareness or thought. We're like the dieters who won't exit the state of denial and actually begin exercising and controlling caloric intake.

“You can always depend upon the Americans to do the right thing,” Winston Churchill famously said years ago, “after they've tried everything else.”

And the right thing is a serious gasoline tax at the pump so that we're reminded each time we fill up that we can find other options for many of our trips.

Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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