Presidential Election 2008: Oil Addiction, the Economy & the Planet

July 29, 2008

Three student readings address our oil addiction and its serious consequences for individuals, the American economy and our planet--and how one small community in Denmark ended its oil addiction. Discussion questions, activities and suggested student inquiries follow.

Our oil addiction and its serious consequences for individuals, the American economy and our planet--and how one small community in Denmark ended its oil addiction--are the subjects of the three student readings below. The readings are followed by discussion questions and activities that prompt students to consider how individuals and groups, past and present, have created solutions for difficult problems. Following that are suggested student inquiries into how to end our oil addiction with climate-friendly solutions.

Earlier materials in the high school section of TeachableMoment that may be useful to teachers include: "Oil and the Bell-Shaped Curve" (readings on U.S. oil history, the "peak oil" concept and energy proposals); "Problems at the Pump (with a DBQ)" (facts about rising gas and oil prices and competing views on solutions); "The Unpleasant News About Global Warming" and "Youth Action on Climate Change."

 


Introduction: Oil Addiction

Oil and gas prices are over the top, and they are driving up the costs of food, home heating, electricity, healthcare and airline fares--while driving down automobile sales, house prices, job opportunities and the stock market.

"Not since at least 1980...has the economy been in worse shape heading into the heart of a presidential campaign," was the first sentence of one article. In another it was, "By huge margins, Americans think the economy is in lousy shape..." (Articles by Adam Nagourney and Paul Krugman, New York Times, 7/7/08)

Energy prices are not the only reason for the economic downturn, but they are a major one.

Presidential candidate Senator John McCain supports President Bush's call for oil drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He also suggests a summer repeal of the federal gas tax. His opponent, Senator Barack Obama, proposes a ten-year $150 billion U.S. investment in the development of renewable fuels and low-emission coal plants. He also calls for a tax on oil companies for "windfall profits" and legislation to require automobile companies to meet higher miles-per-gallon standards.

Whatever the worth of any of these proposals, none will bring relief anytime soon. Oil prices seem headed for $150 per barrel and up and gas prices are barreling toward $5 per gallon and beyond, producing an array of negative effects on the American economy.

"This year, the world is expected to burn through some thirty-one billion barrels of oil, six billion tons of coal, and a hundred trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The combustion of these fossil fuels...will yield around thirty billion tons of carbon dioxide...If current trends in emissions continue...atmospheric CO2 levels are projected to reach... twice pre-industrial levels-virtually guaranteeing an eventual global temperature increase of three or more degrees."

Global consequences cannot be predicted in detail but include widespread plant and animal extinctions, sea level rise of several feet, global crop disruption and severe droughts. (Elizabeth Kolbert, "The Island in the Wind," The New Yorker, 7/14&28/08)

 

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the introduction? How might they be answered?

2. Oil, coal and natural gas-all fossil fuels-are essentials of the American, and every other industrial, economy. How are these fuels affecting the global climate?

3. Elizabeth Kolbert names a few basic consequences in the global environment of their continued, widespread use. Consider each one closely for what it means in human terms. For example, what difference does it make to humans if sea levels rise a few feet?

 


Student Reading 1:

The oil addiction and where it leads

Ghawar. Burgan, Cantarell, Samotlor. They are the names of huge oil fields in, respectively, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Mexico, and Russia that are either beginning to produce less oil or soon will. At the same time, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, BP, and other major oil companies are spending more and more to find new oil reserves and finding less and less. The combination of less production from major oil fields and fewer discoveries of significant new fields is "deadly," wrote Michael Klare in his article "End of the Petroleum Age" in Foreign Policy in Focus (6/28/08). Klare is a professor of world peace and security studies and the author of Blood and Oil and other books and essays on global energy issues.

But it's not as if Americans and their political leaders haven't been warned. "Over the last 25 years, opportunities to head off the current crisis were ignored, missed, or deliberately blocked...Ever since the oil shortages of the 1970s, one report after another has cautioned against America's oil addiction." (Nelson Schwartz, "Asleep at the Spigot," New York Times, 7/6/08)

During those years, America has continued its love affair with gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups. Detroit has successfully resistance raising automotive fuel-efficiency standards. Congress has failed to raise taxes on energy consumption, especially gas. Our leaders have failed to develop a national energy conservation effort, not only to cut back on fossil fuel consumption but also to combat climate change and global warming, to which fossil fuel emissions are the greatest contributor.

At the same time, China and India with their combined populations of well over two billion people have been transforming themselves from undeveloped peasant societies to industrial giants. One statistic alone is especially telling. China, a country whose roads 20 years ago were filled with trolley buses, bicyclers and walkers, today produces 25,000 automobiles daily.

The frequently-named scapegoats for rising oil prices are greedy oil companies, speculators, and OPEC. (OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Companies, was founded in 1960 by the Persian Gulf nations of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the South American nation of Venezuela. Other oil-producing countries joined OPEC later.)

But in fact, these are the factors that are largely responsible for rising oil and gas prices:

1. Diminished oil production from major oil fields
2. Fewer discoveries of large, new oil fields
3. Immense industrial development in what used to be called "the third world"

Persian Gulf nations hold 728 billion gallons, or 55%, of the world's known crude oil reserves and 41% of its natural gas reserves. Net U.S. oil imports came to 17% from the Gulf in 2006, according to the most recent U.S. Energy Information Administration statistics.(www.eia.doe.gov)

The importance of Persian Gulf oil to the United States has a history going back to the 1930s when oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia. President Jimmy Carter stressed the issue in his State of Union Address on January 23, 1980: "Let our position be absolutely clear. An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 jeopardized U.S. access to Gulf oil. A result was the American-led 1991 Gulf War. Iraq's forces were driven out, but at a cost that did not become clear until ten years later. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, fearing an Iraq attack, permitted American troops to establish military bases, not only as a launching pad against Iraq, but also as protection for itself. Those American troops remained in Saudi Arabia after the surrender of Iraq.

Meanwhile, a very wealthy native son of Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden, had become a radical critic of his country's leaders for allowing the country to become, in his words, "an American colony." After Saudi leaders expelled bin Laden from his country, he became even more outspoken in an interview with an American reporter:

"For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples...

"All these crimes and sins committed by Americans are a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger [Muhammad], and Muslims...On this basis, and in compliance with God's order, we issue the following fatwa [religious edict] to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies-civilians and military-is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it...in order to liberate ...the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim." (2/23/98).

American dependence on Persian Gulf oil led directly to bin Laden's creation of Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and to 9/11.

 

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What are three major reasons for rising oil and gas prices?

3. Consider President Carter's statement in 1980. What do you think he had in mind when he emphasized U.S.'s "vital interests" in the Persian Gulf?

4. What does oil have to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

 


Student Reading 2:

The oil addiction and where it leads (continued)

Soon after he entered office, President Bush named Vice President Dick Cheney to head a review of U.S. energy policies. He convened a panel of top executives from leading U.S. energy companies who met in secret for several months. This group gave little attention to other energy sources or to environmental experts who urged a change from the country's reliance on oil to the development of climate-friendly renewables like biofuels, wind, solar, and geothermal.

"Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue," the vice president declared in April 2001, "but it is not a sufficient basis...for sound, comprehensive energy policy." In May the president announced a plan that made no significant change in America's reliance on fossil fuels-oil, coal, natural gas. He supported the development of renewables, but not as a major national priority.

That same year, on September 11, came the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Before the year was out, American troops invaded Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda base. But by early 2002 the president was warning Americans and the world that it was not Osama bin Laden, but Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction that were a growing threat to world peace and security. In his State of the Union speech that year, the president named Iraq and Iran as two of the three nations in his "axis of evil."

Those two nations on the Persian Gulf hold proven oil reserves of 112 billion and 136 billion barrels respectively. (www.eia.doe.gov)

In March 2003 American troops invaded Iraq for the second time in a dozen years, this time seizing Baghdad. U.S. forces largely stood aside as Iraqis looted their archaeological sites and national museum treasures as well as stores, commercial buildings, hospitals, schools, and hundreds of munitions sites. The troops had been ordered to protect the Oil Ministry and the Security Ministry but not much of anything else. U.S. soldiers did search for weapons of mass destruction, but never found any.

"The invasion of Iraq-intended to ensure U.S. control of the Gulf and a stable environment for the expanded production and export of its oil-has had exactly the opposite effect," writes Michael Klare. "Despite the many billions spent on infrastructure protection and the thousands of lives lost, production in Iraq is no higher today than it was before the invasion. Iraq has also become a rigorous training ground for extremists throughout the region, some of whom have now migrated to the oil kingdoms of the lower Gulf and begun attacking the facilities there-generating some of the recent spikes in prices." (Michael Klare, "Why We're Suddenly Paying Through the Nose for Gas," The Nation, 6/21/08)

To Iraq's east is neighboring Iran, with its immense oil fields and its nuclear program, which Iran insists is strictly for peaceful purposes. But Iran has failed to give the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency access to all its nuclear sites and documents. The result is deep suspicion by the U.S. and its allies. Diplomatic efforts have made little progress.

The Bush administration's repeated threats that "all options are on the table" and Iran's response that it will block oil shipping in the Gulf if it is attacked have been a fourth factor in the rise of oil prices. "The National Security Network, a group of security experts, estimates that the Bush administration's policy of bluster, threat, and intermittent low-level actions against Iran has already added a premium of $30-$40 to every $140 barrel of oil." (Tom Englehardt, "Why the U.S. Won't Attack Iran," www.tomdispatch.com, 7/9/08

Despite his stance in favor of oil drilling in the Arctic and the offshore U.S., President Bush has acknowledged that the U.S. "is addicted to oil." That addiction has led to the situation Americans are now in. The choices are clear. Continue the addiction or end it as rapidly as possible through a dramatic reduction in our energy consumption and through shifting to renewable energy sources for the power we do use. Michael Klare calls for "the use of domestic ingenuity and entrepreneurial skills to maximize the potential of renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, geothermal and wave power. The same skills should also be applied...for using coal without releasing carbon into the atmosphere (via "carbon capture and storage"), for miniaturizing hydrogen fuel cells, and for massively increasing the energy efficiency of vehicles, buildings and industrial processes." (Michael Klare, "Garrisoning the Global Gas Station," www.tomdispatch.com, 6/12)

At best, an addiction is very difficult to break, more so when it has enablers.

The oil and gas industry "has traditionally had a cozy financial relationship with lawmakers in Washington, particularly of the Republican variety," the Center for Responsive Politics reports, and "the industry is fighting against punitive measures...Exxon Mobil best exemplifies the defensive position the industry is in-in the first few months of this year, the company has already spent $3 million on lobbying efforts and hired 11 outside lobbying firms"--in addition to its in-house lobbyists. So far in 2008 the oil and gas industry has spent $26.6 million on lobbying and $18.4 million on political contributions, 74% to Republicans.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics "Most recently oil and gas companies have fought off a windfall profits tax of 25 percent and preserved the $17 billion in tax breaks that Democrats wanted to re-direct to renewable energy sources. Republicans say the high gas prices can be remedied not by taxing the industry but by lifting offshore drilling bans and approving oil shale exploration in western states."

"Compared to the industries they're up against, environmental groups have very little money to give to federal candidates, parties, and politicians. In the first three months of this year, Exxon Mobil alone has spent nearly the same amount on lobbying as all environmental groups put together." The Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org) is a non-partisan organization that tracks the amounts and sources of money that go to political candidates and office holders and for lobbying lawmakers.

 

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Do you share the vice president's view of conservation?

3. What does Klare think were the reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003? What evidence is there for his view? How might you find more information on this subject? Do you agree with Klare? Why or why not?

4. Why has there been a growing disagreement between Iran and the U.S. and its allies?

5. What have been the global consequences for oil prices? If disagreement turned into armed conflict, what might be the global consequences for oil prices and supplies?

6. What does Klare view as the basic choices the U.S. now faces because of its oil addiction?

7. How do you explain the lobbying activities of oil and gas companies? Why do you suppose that lobbying by environmental organizations is much weaker?

 


Conclusion--the oil addiction and where it might lead

 

Samsø is a Danish island about the size of Nantucket with 4,300 inhabitants. For the past 10 years or so, writes investigative reporter Elizabeth Kolbert, it "has been the site of an unlikely social movement. When it began...most Samsingers heated their houses with oil, which was brought in on tankers. They used electricity imported from the mainland via cable, much of which was generated by burning coal. As a result, each Samsinger put into the atmosphere, on average, nearly eleven tons of carbon dioxide annually.

"Then, quite deliberately, the residents of the island set about changing this. They formed energy cooperatives and organized seminars on wind power. They removed their furnaces and replaced them with heat pumps. By 2001, fossil-fuel use on Samsø had been cut in half. By 2003, instead of importing electricity, the island was exporting it, and by 2006 it was producing from renewable sources more energy than it was using."

It all began in 1997 when the Danish Ministry of Environment and Energy sponsored a renewable-energy contest. To enter, a community had to present a plan to wean itself from fossil fuel dependence. After discussions with Samsø's mayor, an engineer who did not even live on the island but thought it a likely place for the project devised a plan that won the contest.

Samsingers were surprised but not especially interested. "Besides its designation as Denmark's 'renewable-energy island,' Samsø received basically nothing--no prize money or special tax breaks, or even government assistance." But a few islanders, among them Soren Hermansen, liked the idea. Hermansen had lived on the island his entire life, farming and teaching environmental studies at a local boarding school. He became the project's only employee when some federal money was found to staff one position.

Progress was very slow. Months stretched into several years. Hermansen attended meetings on local issues and talked about the project every chance he got. "He asked Samsingers to think about what it would be like to work together on something they could all be proud of. Occasionally, he brought free beer along to the discussions. Meanwhile, he began trying to enlist the support of the island's opinion leaders...As more people got involved, that prompted others to do so. After a while, enough Samsingers were participating that participation became the norm."

The results: large land-based and offshore wind turbines as well as micro-wind turbines. "The land-based turbines are a hundred and fifty feet tall, with rotors that are eighty feet long. Together, they produce some twenty-six million kilowatt-hours a year, which is just about enough to meet all the island's demands for electricity."

The even-taller offshore turbines "were erected to compensate for Samsø's continuing use of fossil fuels in its cars, trucks, and ferries. Their combined output of around eighty million kilowatt hours a year provides the energy equivalent of all the gasoline and diesel oil consumed on the island, and then some...Samsø generates about ten percent more power than it consumes." Money for the turbines came from a few wealthy Samsinger investors as well as a collective of some hundreds of Samsingers.

Hermansen said the only major disappointment in the Samsø effort was the resistance of Samsingers to reducing their consumption of energy. And yet environmentalists have pointed out that cutting consumption is by far the most effective and cheapest way to shrink our "carbon footprint."

Still, Samsø's bottom-up approach to energy independence was hugely successful overall. Asked what other communities might learn from Samsø, Hermansen said, "I think we as a nation should be part of the global consciousness. But each individual cannot be part of that. So 'Think globally, act locally' is the key message for us."

A key message for the rest of us: Former Saudi Arabian oil minister Sheikh Yamani once said, "the Stone Age didn't end because there were no more stones. It ended because people became more intelligent."

James Hanson, NASA's chief climate scientist, has been warning about the dangers of global warming for twenty years. He now warns that "there would be no practical way to prevent "disastrous" climate change unless the next President and Congress act quickly to curb emissions.

"Few parts of the U.S. may be as windy as Samsø...but just about everywhere there are possibilities for generating energy more inventively and using it more intelligently. Realizing these possibilities will require a great deal of effort. We may well decide not to make this effort. Such a choice to put off change, however, will merely drive us toward it," concludes Elizabeth Kolbert. ("The Island in the Wind," The New Yorker, 7/14/08)

 

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What do you regard as the key factors in Samsø's adoption of wind power as its chief source of energy? "He asked Samsingers to think about what it would be like to work together on something they could all be proud of," Kolbert writes.  Why can such an appeal be effective? Why was the support of "opinion leaders" important?

3. Land-based turbines meet all of Samsø's electricity needs, so why did the island people also build offshore turbines?

4. What would be an example of thinking globally and acting locally?

5. What evidence can you offer to support Sheikh Hamani's comment? To refute it?

6. Explain Kolbert's final sentence.

 

To help students see that they are not the first generation to confront and create solutions for serious problems, conduct a ten-minute brainstorming session.

Possible question: What is one pre-twentieth century problem that an earlier generations solved?

Discuss: What do you know about any cooperative effort that made the solution possible? If you don't know, how might you find out?

(For a classic example, see on the Ideas & Essays section of TeachableMoment, "Changing the World: Two Books by Adam Hochschild." The two books provide detailed accounts of how small groups of people working together were responsible for ending Britain's slave trade and the murderous brutality of Belgium's treatment of the Congo people.)

 

Have students interview one or both of their parents or grandparents on innovations and solutions to problems that they may have been involved in during some point in their lives. Help students to frame the questions. Students might take notes during and after the interviews, organize them and report to the class on their findings. Sample questions: Have you ever worked with a group to change something in your town? Your country? The world? How did the group start? What did the group do?

For writing and discussion

Ask students to write about one of the following questions. Then have students discuss their responses in small groups, and later with the whole class.

1. What is one way that your school could be made better? How might this change be brought about?

2. What is one way that your town or city could be a better place to live in. How might this change be brought about?

 

Individually or in small groups, ask students to frame and than have approved a question with which to begin an investigation into one of the following:

1. Everyday energy efficiency measures
2. Solar power
3. Wind power
4. Geothermal power
5. Wave power
6. Hydrogen fuel cells
7. Vehicle energy efficiency
8. Cleaner coal

 

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.