Slashing Oil Dependence Key to Avoiding More Spills, Here and Abroad


In the wake of spills in the Gulf, we must take real steps to safeguard our coasts and oceans. However, the oil market is global and other nations such as Nigeria and Norway may be advancing offshore drilling programs with an eye to replacing U.S. oil production.

This is in part explained by the globe's tremendous thirst for the black stuff. I recently stumbled across a new and compelling way to wrap my head around the scale of our oil addiction. Globally we consume about one trillion gallons of oil annually, which is about equal to one cubic mile of oil. Just to explain how massive this is, you could fill the giant Bird's Nest Stadium from the 2008 Beijing Olympics 850 times over with that amount of oil. Here's a graphic depiction next to the Eiffel Tower for scale:

Unfortunately results from additional drilling are likely to vary greatly depending on the country, and increased drilling elsewhere is likely to yield substantial social and environmental damage. This is due in part to what economists call the “resource curse” whereby nations endowed with large natural resource endowments don’t necessarily prosper. Recent analysis shows that governance – i.e., whether or not there are democratic elections and other checks and balances to keep corruption at bay – is the key factor in whether or not society and its economy and environment benefit from being abundantly gifted with some commodity under one’s soil.

This is why Norway may not be at risk should it increase production, also made more likely due to laudable environmental policies and practices. For example, the bulk of profits from petroleum exports to into a special fund created in part to finance the transition to other energy and industrial income after resources are drained. Norway also assesses a carbon-pollution-based tax on industry including oil. It is also the host to the first commercial-scale underground (and underwater) sequestration of carbon dioxide, in the Sleipner field where one million tons of this heat-trapping pollution has been disposed of annually since 1996 (information in this paragraph comes from Frank T. Manheim's The Conflict Over Environmental Regulation in the United States).

Nigeria, like many other oil-exporting countries, is a different story. Many have weakly-enforced environmental laws (or, in the case of Kazakhstan, laws that are merely three years old!). This means that spills are more of a fact of life than in the U.S. As Amnesty International documented in a 2009 study there are spills in Nigeria almost weekly, with about 2,000 active ones last year and an eye-popping 9-13 million barrels of oil have been spilled onshore and offshore in the last 50 years. The Niger Delta, one of the world’s most important wetland and coastal ecosystems, has been plundered for its oil since commercial production started in 1958. Yet as described in this analysis the people of the region have suffered the consequences extensive pollution, including damage to fishing needed for subsistence and a massive transfer of resources out of the region to corrupt officials and other parts of the country.

This is why my friend Lisa Margonelli has rightly said we need a moratorium on oil itself, not just one offshore drilling, to avoid exporting oil spills and contributing to the misery of countries cursed with oil and poor governance.The best way to counter the oil curse is to break our addiction, and the next biggest step in that direction is to push the fuel economy performance bar on our car and truck fleet up further, saving consumers big bucks to boot.