Escaping the Oil Trap

Selflessness doesn’t just benefit recipients, but those on the giving side of the
equation, too. The bonus: There are so many ways to give, whether you are being
charitable with your money, time or love. Here’s what science says about
altruism and how it enhances all our lives.

By Eric Schneider

July August 2008

Our use of petroleum and fossil fuels is downright addicting, not to mention environmentally hazardous. Can we slip oil’s greasy grasp before it does us in? The health of the planet’s water and air hinges on finding an answer to what may be the most crucial question of our time.

Ouch! Filling up the tank costs from $60 to a wince-inducing $100 for bigger vehicles, and even fuel-efficient cars tend to rack up $40 to $50 receipts at the pump. With costs for regular unleaded fuel climbing above a staggering $4 per gallon at press time, frustrations with Big Oil have reached a new peak. Coupled with an interest in more environmentally friendly fuel options, this has prompted steady rumblings for oil independence to grow louder.

Getting the Most
from Your Gas

Saving your pennies for that sweet little hybrid in the dealer’s showroom? Good move, but you can conserve fuel even before you trade up by heeding the following tips, courtesy of the National Resources Defense Council (, 212-727-2700).

Given that as a nation we collectively run through roughly 55,000 gallons of gas a day, these simple ideas can save wear on both the environment and your wallet.

* Don’t be a leadfoot. Dropping from 75 to 65 MPH, for example, can cut your gas usage by 15%.

* Get tuneups on a regular basis. Keeping your engine in good shape can not only net you another 15% drop in consumption but can increase your car’s useful lifespan. When you do visit the mechanic, ask about energy-conserving motor oils.

* Keep your tires at the correct pressure. Under-inflation reduces mileage.

* If you’re going to be sitting for a while—at a railroad crossing or waiting for the coach to dismiss your child’s team—cut the engine. Idling for more than 30 seconds consumes more gas than a restart.

* Team up with your coworkers on your daily ride to work, or ask your employer about telecommuting at least part of the time. Use mass transit whenever possible.

Becoming energy self-sufficient by weaning ourselves off of foreign oil is far from easy or direct. The United States consumes 20.5 million barrels of oil a day—roughly a quarter of world oil production—but produces only 5.1 million barrels per day. This means that to become oil independent, we need to reduce our oil consumption by 75%, observes Jonathan Dorn, PhD, MPP, staff researcher at the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, DC. This heavy reliance on foreign oil is deeply ingrained in both the economy and the energy industry. Even with considerable instability in regions that supply much of our petroleum, most notably the Middle East, we continue to rely on these sources, fueling our well-earned reputation for oil addiction.

Still, there’s nothing like sticker shock to make even the most ardent consumers reevaluate their buying decisions. “We are now in the early phases of a cold bath of economic reality,” says David W. Orr, PhD, the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College.

Whether the motivation is financial, environmental or simply a desire to cut tethers, the push for oil independence is banking on a wide array of options. One obvious route is to tap into more American oil fields. Domestic production peaked in the early 1970s, however, and is now in “terminal decline,” says Dorn. Any further production, such as extracting petroleum from Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Resource (ANWR), would only amount to a short-term slowdown in this fall-off. “Increasing domestic production is not a viable strategy for the United States,” Dorn says.

Bad Choices

Many alternative strategies hold a good deal of promise, but some have been deemed unrealistic or downright dangerous. “Nuclear, for all of the hype, is a fantasy that if deployed becomes a nightmare of accidents, terrorism and bankruptcy,” Orr says. Another notable oil alternative is the hydrogen fuel cell, though critics claim that this technology, in its current state, is not terribly efficient, and may pose safety concerns and environmental hazards.

As for coal, the pollution it causes can be offset by CO2 sequestration, in which the excess carbon is drawn out of the atmosphere and stored underground. But this concept has not yet been tried on a large scale and “no one knows whether it is possible to sequester CO2 in perpetuity at a price that competes with” other alternatives, according to Orr.

Dorn also eschews coal, noting the perils of its conversion into liquid. “Coal-derived liquid fuel carries with it considerable economic, social and environmental costs,” he says. The increase in coal mining required would devastate local communities and the environment in Appalachia, where mountaintop removal is a prevalent practice, and in the Rocky Mountains. Additionally, relying on liquid coal would almost double global warming pollution per gallon of transportation fuel—“an unacceptable and senseless choice, both in terms of the environmental consequences and the financial risk,” Dorn adds.

Such concerns are exemplified by the fate of FutureGen, a plant in Mattoon, Illinois, that was to showcase technologies for both carbon sequestration and turning coal into gas. In January, the federal government announced that it was pulling out of the plan after projected costs soared to $1.8 billion, nearly double the original estimate.

The Ethanol Edge?

Another oil alternative that has been the subject of much debate is ethanol. Currently blended into most gasoline available in the US at a rate of about 10% or less, ethanol was once heralded as a leading antidote to America’s voracious oil habit. Primarily created from corn, ethanol has sparked a heated “food or fuel” debate about the best use for the country’s vast fields of maize,    as their diversion to the fuel supply has been blamed for the sharp rise   in prices of food and other goods corn is used to produce, such as dietary supplements.

Ethanol has also been tagged as inefficient. The effort and resources needed to convert corn may outweigh the benefits of the end product. And America simply can’t produce enough ethanol; experts say that even if the country’s entire corn crop were used for ethanol, it would replace less than 10% of petroleum consumption. “We can’t make enough of it, it competes with food and has questionable, at best, emissions reductions,” says Steve Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, a group that “campaigns to expose the true costs of oil”

On the upside, however, cellulosic ethanol is made from plant cellulose instead of corn, and does not draw resources from the world’s food supply. With more development, this form of ethanol may become a key energy source in the future, with researchers focusing on switchgrass—a prairie grass that thrives on poor soil and is packed with cellulose—as well as other biofuels, including sugarcane and certain algae species.

Going Renewable

Orr believes that two of the best alternatives are pursuing both greater vehicle fuel efficiency and various forms of renewable energy. “The best options for the US include policies to aggressively raise energy efficiency and, second, to implement renewables with equal vigor and imagination,” Orr says. “Nothing else is remotely as cost effective or quick with as few collateral problems.”

Dirty Air, Breathless Kids

It is a parent’s nightmare: Watching a child wheeze and gasp as asthma constricts the youngster’s airways. According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), this chronic disease causes more than 14 million missed school days and sends 728,000 children to the emergency room every year.

While asthma attacks can be triggered by a number of situations, including exertion and upper respiratory infection, air pollution plays its nasty part. “There’s a ton of research that says air pollution makes asthma worse,” says EDF chief health scientist John Balbus, MD, MPH. He cites a 2001 JAMA study on how extra mass transit use during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics affected asthma among children. In addition to a 28% reduction in ozone, a chief air pollution component, asthma-related ER visits dropped by more than 11% and hospitalizations by more than 19%. Balbus says studies also show an increase in the incidence of asthma among kids exposed early in life to diesel exhaust from truck traffic; children living in inner cities are especially at risk.

A healthy lifestyle can help reduce the chance that an asthma attack will occur. Keep your child away from cigarette smoke, for starters. If he or she suffers from allergies, try to eliminate or at least reduce exposure to allergens; don’t forget that a number of foods, especially milk and eggs, can spur allergic reactions. Herbalists use garlic to both encourage circulation in the lung area and to “help ward off respiratory infections, which typically aggravate asthma,” write Linda White, MD, and Sunny Mavor, AHG, in Kids, Herbs & Health (Interweave Press); they also recommend immune-supporting herbs such as echinacea at the first sign of a cold. Since asthma is an inflammatory response that’s gone out of control, many practitioners recommend omega-3 fatty acids, which help fight inflammation. Scientists have found lower blood levels of vitamin C in children with asthma, and magnesium is crucial for proper lung function. White and Mavor also recommend red clover as a mild expectorant.

Dorn agrees, saying the 35 miles per gallon CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standard passed under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 should be revised upward. He says the CAFE standard should be raised to a minimum 45 mpg, equivalent to the fuel efficiency of cars now on the market (such as the Toyota Prius). Revised standards for fuel efficiency can help spur additional alternatives such as hybrids like the Prius and flex-fuel vehicles. The first combines petroleum power with electricity; the second employs an engine that runs on standard gas along with ethanol and/or natural gas.

A vast umbrella term for natural resource-based fuel alternatives, renewable energy includes hydro power, solar power, wind power, geothermal power and biofuels. Though some of these sources can’t power vehicles directly, these elemental options can convert energy into electricity; that wattage can be used to power hybrid or electric cars.

“If we begin replacing fossil-fuel based electricity generation with renewables, such as wind and solar, then cars can be powered with clean, renewable energy and at a low cost,” Dorn says. Recharging batteries with off-peak wind-generated electricity would cost the equivalent of less than $1 per gallon of gasoline, he adds.

Modifying hybrids to run largely on electricity could reduce gasoline use by 80%, Dorn says. “The United States could easily cut its gasoline use in half simply by converting the US automobile fleet to highly efficient hybrid cars. No change in the number of vehicles, no change in the miles driven—just doing it with the most efficient propulsion technology on the market.”

Since hybrid vehicles are becoming more familiar, Dorn says, it would be “a relatively small step to manufacturing plug-in hybrids that run largely on electricity. By putting a larger battery in a gas/electric hybrid to increase its storage of electricity and adding a plug-in capacity so the battery can be recharged from the power grid, drivers can do their commuting, grocery shopping, and other short-distance travel almost entirely with electricity, saving gasoline for the occasional long trip.”

However, the movement to get electric vehicles on our nation’s roads has not gone smoothly, as detailed in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? This film follows the brief life of General Motors’ EV1 program, an initiative that produced, leased—and ultimately recalled—a consumer-oriented electric vehicle in the late 1990s after encountering both Big Oil opposition and
marketing concerns about whether people would be willing to make the switch. With successors to the EV1 on the horizon, though—most notably the Tesla Roadster (scheduled for release in 2008) and the Chevrolet Volt (slated for 2010)—electricity could reassert itself as a major contender in powering transportation.

With such significant fuel alternatives now in play, oil companies have been trying to recast themselves as more progressive entities; BP (a.k.a. British Petroleum), for example, has adopted a green-friendly logo and now touts the slogan “Beyond Petroleum.” Much of this perceived change may mostly be marketing alone. Dorn points out that the real “alternative” that BP is actively pursuing is oil sands, which, like oil shale, is essentially a cousin of crude oil that’s more difficult to extract from the earth.

“Producing oil from oil sands is highly carbon-intensive,” Dorn explains. “Heating and extracting the oil from the sands relies on the extensive use of natural gas, production of which has already peaked in North America. Presently, two tons of sand must be mined to yield two barrels of oil.” Another indicator of the faux-green trend—Shell recently withdrew its stake in the London Array wind farm, a massive project off the coast of England. Though Big Oil projects images of heading in new directions, it may just be making different stops on the same well-worn routes.

Petroleum and People

Finding an alternative to oil isn’t just an environmental and political imperative—it’s crucial for human health as well. Air pollution has been linked to asthma (see the box on page 32) and lung cancer, and may have a broader reach. “We’re just starting to get a handle on the effects of air pollution on other parts of the body,” says John Balbus, MD, MPH, chief health scientist for the Environ­mental Defense Fund ( “In the last 10 to 15 years there’s been a substantial amount of scientific evidence that fine particles in air pollution can trigger heart attacks and contribute to chronic heart disease.” Dirty air has been linked to birth complications, and one study shows an association between fine particles and mental impairment in children (American Journal of Epidemiology 2/1/08).

Petroleum spillage also inflicts harm. People tend to remember disasters such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident, which poured 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. But smaller spills, like those that occur near refineries or leakage from gas station holding tanks, are harmful as well. “Once you contaminate underground water, it’s tough to remove toxins,” says Balbus. “Gas has a ton of additives, including oxygenates such as MTBE and benzene, an anti-knock compound that is extremely toxic.”

The biggest roadblock to achieving oil independence clearly isn’t a lack of alternatives or technology, it is largely an issue of both public and governmental awareness and a corresponding willingness to move in new directions. As Dorn confidently predicts, the US, by presenting “a strong will to change the status quo, can achieve oil independence within two decades.”

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