A few notes on the oil spill

The actual cost of the BP oil spill won’t be known for quite some time. But it’s clear that it was big and is ruining a lot of people’s fun. Unlike the Exxon Valdez in areas of reduced population, we’ve got oil washing up on prime beaches.

I think of inevitability. Accidents are somewhat inevitable. Sometimes you can pick where your accidents happen. But, using resources that are sufficiently expended that only the deposits that are hard to get at are left means that you might end up with accidents in locations you’d rather not have them.

Sometimes you have the luxury of reducing the impact of your accidents. The nuclear industry calls this “Defense in Depth” and, while there were some close calls on their part, has resulted in a pretty good safety record. Drilling offshore means that you may not be able to have layers of safeguards like nuclear reactors or even land-based wells.

I think of fear. Oil isn’t frightening. It’s toxic, kills animals, and doesn’t decay. But it doesn’t scare people. Radiation, on the other hand, is frightening. Do we require every last waste product of the fossil-fuel power system to be sequestered? Do we require every leaking gram of oil to be accounted for? No, but we do for nuclear power.

I think of ineffectiveness. People run to blame BP. Point out BP’s safety record. Why not blame our thirst for oil? We want oil and we want it to be under $4/gal. We’re all at fault here. We reward BP for cutting so many costs that they have significantly more accidents than any other oil company as a percentage of their share of the market because we want cheap gas and don’t care how we get it.

BP is operating in a regulatory regime set up in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez. This regime limits BP’s liability for “routine” oil spills not caused by negligence. It was a political compromise. Their liability is limited. In return, they are taxed to fund the inevitable cleanup. This is the first big test of that act and, as far as I can tell, it’s failed quite well. Now the same people who voted overwhelmingly for it previously are wanting to repeal parts of it.

People want to boycott BP, forgetting that the petroleum industry is integrated out of need. Pipelines and drills and refineries are so big and expensive that you may very well get BP gas from a Shell station, where the only “Shell” portion is some magical mystical “Nitrogen Enhanced” potion. Please note that Nitrogen is the primary contribution to smog and isn’t something you want extras of in gasoline. And, personally, the idea that people drove to protest against BP in gasoline they unwittingly purchased from BP gives me the giggles.

Now, here’s where I point out that I don’t drive very much anymore. I don’t. In fact, I went for several months where I was too lazy to renew my driver’s license, so I couldn’t drive if I wanted to. And you want to know what? Dramatically curtailing my driving was a really good move on my part. People think that I’m doing it for environmental reasons, but it’s primarily because keeping a car going is expensive, even without paying for gas. And, overall, I’m a happier, smarter, and better looking person.

A lot of folks look at gas prices going up and panic. I don’t. The past few years have opened my eyes. High gas prices make me happy because I know that it’s the only thing that actually encourages America to consider reducing the number of miles they drive. Thing is, if you talk to somebody in America about the possibility of going car-light or car-free, a good number of them get extremely agitated. They say the same things I used to say, before I went car-light. And I now know that most of those reasons have little basis in reality, something I found out once I started riding more and more and driving less and less.

We’re heavily subsidizing the way things are. A chunk of my hard-earned cash goes to pay for highway projects that do not accommodate my bike. Oil companies pay less than their fair share of taxes because it’s so important that oil be cheap. We’ve gone to war in the middle east because we need friends there to prevent the flow of oil from getting cut off. Our friends and enemies in the middle east have gone to war over the oil fields.

Based on how things have worked out for me, if our primary form of transportation was bike + transit, we’d have room in our garages and budget for flying cars, while consuming oil and polluting at the same rate as we do today. That’s where our flying cars that we were promised went! Alternatively, we’d live in a world where we didn’t worry nearly as much about what’s happening in the middle east and didn’t pollute as much. Or maybe we’d live in a world where you could have a vacation on the moon every year. There’s tons of permutations and most of them aren’t actually that bad.

I think of not being alone. Bikes are not yet a major presence in rural and suburban Midwest. But more people are riding and walking than before. At the same time, fewer cyclists and pedestrians are being killed each year. This gives me hope that it won’t be business as usual, like how every president in the past 40 years has promised to reduce our reliance on oil.