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Jeff Jacoby

Oil fuels better lives

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / June 9, 2010

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AS THE DEEPWATER Horizon spill continues to foul the Gulf of Mexico, pundits and policymakers everywhere are once again reaching for the A-word.

The BP disaster, proclaims Washington eminence David Gergen, is “a wake-up call to end our addiction to oil.’’

Without “a real climate bill,’’ warn the editors of the Washington Post, “America might be addicted to oil a lot longer than it needs to be.’’

We must “begin to wean ourselves from our addiction to oil,’’ intones Senator John Kerry on ABC, while syndicated columnist Thomas Friedman lambastes “the powerful lobbies and vested interests that want to keep us addicted to oil.’’

To be sure, this isn’t a new trope. Barack Obama liked to say during his presidential campaign that we are bankrolling “both sides of the war on terror’’ through our “addiction to oil.’’ George W. Bush, a onetime oilman, memorably announced in his 2006 State of the Union address that “America is addicted to oil.’’ According to Nexis, the media database, the metaphor dates back at least as far as 1974, when psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wrote in The New York Times that “oil addiction is equivalent to drug addiction.’’

But it’s not.

The explosion of BP’s oil rig in the Gulf has been a calamity in so many ways, above all the loss of 11 human lives. With hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil gushing daily from the crippled wellhead, the environmental impacts have been excruciating. BP is responsible for a dreadful mess, one that will take years and many millions of dollars to clean up.

Awful as the catastrophe has been, however, life without oil would be far, far worse.

Americans consume oil not because they are “addicted’’ to it, but because it enriches their lives, making possible prosperity, comfort, and mobility that would have been all but unimaginable just a few generations ago. Almost by definition, an addiction is something one is healthier without. But oil-based energy improves human health and reduces poverty — it makes life longer, safer, and better. Addictions debase life. Oil improves and expands it.

“Oil may be the single most flexible substance ever discovered,’’ writes the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce in “Power Hungry,’’ a new book on the myths of “green’’ energy. “More than any other substance, oil helped to shrink the world. Indeed, thanks to its high energy density, oil is a nearly perfect fuel for use in all types of vehicles, from boats and planes to cars and motorcycles. Whether measured by weight or by volume, refined oil products provide more energy than practically any other commonly available substance, and they provide it in a form that’s easy to handle, relatively cheap, and relatively clean.’’ If oil didn’t exist, Bryce quips, we’d have to invent it.

Of course there are problems created by oil, as the Deepwater Horizon calamity so heartbreakingly demonstrates. But most things of great value come with downsides. There are 40,000 traffic fatalities in the United States each year, but no rational person suggests doing away with cars, trucks, and highways. Airplanes sometimes crash and boats sometimes sink, but air and sea travel are not derided as “addictions’’ we need to break. Deaths due to hospital infections, medication errors, or unnecessary surgery number in the scores of thousands annually, but who would recommend an end to medical care?

Someday there may be an energy source that is as abundant, efficient, clean, and economically viable as oil. But nothing today fits that bill — certainly not biofuels, wind farms, or solar power. Besides, it isn’t only energy products that we get from petroleum. Crude oil refining also makes possible plastics, synthetic fibers, lubricants, waxes, asphalt. “Other products made from petroleum,’’ notes the US Energy Information Administration, “include ink, crayons, bubble gum, dishwashing liquids, deodorant, eyeglasses, CDs and DVDs, tires, ammonia, [and] heart valves.’’

The United States consumes more than 300 billion gallons of oil per year, nearly two-thirds of it imported. There is no denying the drawbacks associated with oil, but its advantages are equally undeniable. American wealth, progress, and autonomy — the most dynamic and productive economy in history — would be impossible without it. What we have isn’t an addiction, but a blessing.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.

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