by Joshua H. Liberatore
California EPA Secretary Terry Tamminen delivers in Lives Per Gallon a compelling if not altogether shocking diagnosis of our present energy ills. Its subtitle “The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction” may first suggest another liberal tract full of liberal self-loathing and guilty hand-wringing about American dependence on cars and the fossil fuels that run them. But Lives Per Gallon presents a much broader, wide-ranging discussion of the problem whose catchphrases are all to easy to utter in public without a firm grasp of either the full extent of the consequences or the ready solutions that have been systematically ignored for decades. It’s as if policymakers and politicians have convinced themselves that using a loaded clinical word like “addiction” means they have recognized and accepted viable treatments, in many cases, available at the rehab clinic around the corner. But Tamminen, as Governor Schwarzenegger’s special assistant on environmental policy, is neither so blithe nor so naive as national politicians have proven to be. In an era when we increasingly must look to states, municipalities, and even private companies and organizations, rather than the Federal government, to lead on forging solutions to our most pressing environmental and energy problems, Tamminen’s candid voice and direct experience in California’s largely successful energy policy portfolio are welcome refreshment.
One of the most striking aspects of Tamminen’s analysis that may motivate those otherwise indifferent to the ecological costs of our dependency on hydrocarbons is his extensive look at their lesser-known health effects. From a variety of perspectives, Tamminen evaluates the hidden costs of petroleum consumption: on oil workers, on the lungs of commuters and urbanites, on populations exposed to oil spills, on plant and animal life adjacent to oil activity. Besides visible exhaust from cars and factories, petroleum products produce a miasma of pernicious elements (benzene, dangerous particulate matter, volatile byproducts, etc.) in our atmosphere that linger, penetrate our food chain for good, enter our bodies, and taint our water resources. Tamminen stipulates that an industry-wide class action lawsuit could brought against oil and auto manufacturing companies on a scale that would put the famous tobacco settlement to shame. Furthermore, true pricing of gasoline and petroleum products that accounts for all the hidden costs would offer a shock to our economy and pocket books that we would not easily dismiss.
Anyone who has seen eye-opening documentaries like The End of Suburbia or Who Killed the Electric Car? will recognize some of the same damning themes in Tamminen’s assessment as well. In particular, as we continue to approach “peak oil” – the point at which no new reserves of oil are harvested and available world supply thereafter drops precipitously – the immense costs of our car-dependent lifestyles, which have never been truly borne by consumers, unless you count tax dollars spent on overseas wars, exorbitant corporate subsidies, generous aid to oil states, just to name a few, will shortly become ominously apparent and are certain to yield social and infrastructural consequences that boggle the mind. And the relevant industries know it, which is why oil companies and conventional utilities have emerged as huge investors in and developers of renewable energy sources and technologies. The only question is when will governments and consumers catch up? Those among us who offer tired rhetoric about some undiscovered technology or scientific advancement that will save us from our errant ways ignore the fact that viable, affordable technologies already exist that would begin to repair the damage. The short-lived electric vehicle (EV) movement that California’s landmark 1990 zero-emission regulations sparked remains an unflattering example of superior technology and sound science being squashed by industry intransigence, political cowardice, and consumer impatience. Perhaps a major energy cataclysm – not merely the $4.50/gallon fill-ups of spring 2008 or the ongoing painful misadventure in Iraq, but something that really hurts average Americans – will be required before a wide swath of people, not just those bleeding-heart Californians, muster the political will and consumer forbearance to break the addiction for good.