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Feature Articles:

Oil: More Costly Than You Think

Lightening: Protecting Your Family and Home



First of Two Parts

By Lauren Poole
EcoIQ Magazine Contributing Editor

Fvery time gas prices rise, there is a public outcry to reduce the cost of oil. What most Americans don’t realize, however, is that they have been paying a very high price for oil - but only a fraction at the gas pump - for years.

Fueling our automobiles and other transportation vehicles with oil has many costs. These include polluting the air in our cities and contaminating our water and land, contributing to global warming, and damaging our public health, our economy, and our country's energy security. None of these costs are reflected in the market price of oil.

Environmental Costs

The Earth is fragile, and everything on it is interconnected. When we pollute our air and water with toxins produced from burning oil in our cars, trucks, SUVs, and buses, we not only affect our health, but the wellbeing of the entire planet.

Global Warming. Perhaps the most costly outcome of our overuse of oil is global warming. The United States is a major contributor to the problem. Over the last 150 years, burning fossil fuels has resulted in more than a 25 percent increase in the amount of

"Already, the United States has seen polar warming in Alaska, coral reef bleaching in Florida, marsh loss in the Chesapeake Bay, and glaciers melting in Montana."

carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. As a result, the earth is getting warmer.

If the earth's temperature continues to rise, it could have a dramatic impact on all our lives. Polar ice caps and glaciers will melt. Sea levels will rise. Flooding and tropical diseases will occur in places where they haven't before. Heat waves and droughts will become widespread. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes will increase. Already, the United States has seen polar warming in Alaska, coral reef bleaching in Florida, marsh loss in the Chesapeake Bay, and glaciers melting in Montana.

Air Pollution. When oil is burned in our cars and buses, a variety of pollutants are emitted. Complex chemical reactions occur between these emitted pollutants, which gives the distinctive brown haze to our air known as smog. Smog is made up, in large part, of ozone gas. When most people think of ozone, they think of the protective layer of ozone in the earth's upper atmosphere that protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays. At the ground level, however, ozone is a toxic gas. In 1990, Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments to combat high emission levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, which react to form ground-level ozone. Yet many Americans still live in cities not meeting at

"Public health costs due to air pollution account for over three-quarters of total pollution-related health costs and could be as high as $182 billion annually."

least one federal air quality standard. The effect smog has on humans is worse than you may think.

Air pollution has a enormous effect on public health. Recent studies have linked ground level ozone pollution with increases in hospital admissions for respiratory conditions, especially among children with asthma, the elderly, and people with heart and lung disease. According to the American Lung Association, air pollution contributes to lung disease – including asthma, lung cancer, and respiratory tract infections – and close to 335,000 people in the United States die from lung disease every year. Public health costs due to air pollution account for over three-quarters of total pollution-related health costs and could be as high as $182 billion annually.

Water Pollution. Almost a billion gallons of oil are spilled into the world's oceans and waterways each year. Acute oil spills, such as the Exxon Valdez marine oil spill in Alaska in 1989, can damage individual organisms and wipe out entire populations of marine and coastal species. Even more alarming, however, is that marine oil spills such as the Valdez spill are not nearly as damaging to the environment as the thousands of smaller spills that are reported annually. Pipeline spills reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation average 12 million gallons of petroleum products per year. The Exxon Valdez Spill, by comparison, spewed out 11 million gallons.

Oceans aren't the only problem when it comes to oil contamination. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than a quarter of the nation's one million underground gasoline and oil tanks leak, causing contamination to groundwater that supplies wells and springs. Besides direct oil spills and leaks, secondary water pollution from petroleum is also a problem. Oil and gas leaks from cars and trucks accumulate on roads and parking lots, and these pollutants are carried to streams and lakes whenever it rains. This runoff can be highly toxic to aquatic plant and animal life.

Acid Rain. Oil contains sulfur, and when it's burned, the sulfur in the fuel is emitted into the atmosphere as sulfur dioxide (SO2). In the atmosphere, SO2 becomes an aerosol of sulfuric acid that is commonly known as acid rain. When the SO2 concentrations are very high in rainfall, they can cause severe respiratory damage to humans and substantial damage to buildings. Fortunately for humans, most of this sulfur falls back onto the earth in unpopulated regions. Unfortunately, the areas that do get damaged are our agricultural regions, forests, and lakes. Acidic rain causes an estimated $2 to $3 billion of damage to agricultural crops in the United States each year. Natural forests die from the acid rain, along with their biologically diverse species. Thousands of lakes in the U.S. and Canada have suffered serious losses of aquatic life due to acidic rain.

Economic Costs

While the environment might be the hardest hit by the increasing use of oil for transportation, our economy doesn't escape unscathed either. Oil imports account for almost half of the U.S. trade deficit - the gap between what a country sells and what it buys overseas. This has an enormous impact on our economy.

U.S. Trade Deficit. Long lines to buy gasoline were not the only thing that resulted from the Arab Oil Embargo and the Iranian Oil Embargo during the 1970s. Sharp oil price hikes and supply disruptions during that period increased the trade deficit and disrupted industries dependent on oil. Negative economic growth followed, and thousands of jobs were lost. Between 1974 and 1984, oil supply disruptions cost the United States an astounding $1.5 trillion. In 1987, the U.S. trade deficit in crude oil was $27 billion. In 1990, that figure doubled to $43.7 billion. In 1999, the total

"Our country may be in more danger from an invading desert than from an invading army."

U.S. trade deficit reached an astounding $271.3 billion, up 65.1 percent from 1998. The increase in the deficit was mainly due to a 33.7 percent jump in America's foreign oil bill. It is projected that petroleum imports will account for 60 to 70 percent of the U.S. trade deficit in the next 10 to 20 years. The growing trade deficit is weakening the U.S. dollar, and investors involved in the U.S. stock market fear that it will encourage foreign investors to take their investments elsewhere. Many European countries are already questioning how long the U.S. can continue to absorb the deficit.

Defense spending. The cost of maintaining the uninterrupted flow of oil from the Gulf region is high - as much as $57 billion per year. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimated that the cost of U.S. military and foreign aid programs in the Gulf area from 1980 to 1990 was as high as $365 billion. Yet the global warming danger that looms ahead may be far more important. Our country may be in more danger from an invading desert than from an invading army.

Energy Security Costs

Where we buy our oil is as important as its price. If we rely too heavily on foreign countries for our energy needs, we will ultimately rely on them for our very lives.

Shrinking supplies. The nation's oil reserve is about 600 million barrels (stockpiled in Texas and Louisiana) set aside by law for emergencies. If the United States were forced to use this reserve, it wouldn't last long.

Oil production in most states peaked decades ago. Alaska couldn't supply the oil needed for the long-term. Nor could the recent oil discoveries off the coast of South America. And who's going to fuel China and other developing countries? As these countries develop, their growing consumption will rapidly draw down what many geologists believe is already a dwindling world supply of oil.

"Regardless of whether the ‘optimistic’ or the ‘pessimistic’ experts are proven correct over time, the end of the age of oil is indisputably approaching."

Even "optimistic" experts, such as Professor John Edwards, a 37-year veteran of the oil industry now teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder, predicts the world's demand for oil will outstrip supply by 2020. New technology to improve oil production - or rather "oil extraction" - is included in his prediction. When oil supplies start to decline, it will mean the end of "cheap" oil. This could happen within 10 years, according to more "pessimistic" experts. Regardless of whether the "optimistic" or the "pessimistic" experts are proven correct over time, the end of the age of oil is indisputably approaching.

Increased dependence. Non-OPEC nations currently produce 60 percent of the world's oil supply, but OPEC controls 75 percent of known reserves. What does this mean to the United States? It means that within the next ten to twenty years, when oil supplies begin to decline and the U.S. imports more of its oil from the Persian Gulf, our economy will be very vulnerable. This is unsettling to political analysts because many of the countries in the Persian Gulf are anti-western. Some experts argue that it would not be rational for OPEC countries to cut off oil to the United States because their own economies are closely tied to ours. Others say that politics is not "rational," and that given the unstable political position of some of these country’s governments, the United States should not gamble with its energy and economic future.

In Summary

The use of oil in our transportation vehicles pollutes our air, water and land. It harms our health. More than that, it threatens our economy and our future by making the United States increasingly dependent on foreign oil.

If only military and energy security costs were taken into consideration, the cost of oil would be as high as $100 per barrel -- or $5 a gallon. And this still doesn't factor in oil’s enormous damage to the environment, not to speak of the lives sacrificed in military conflicts to maintain our "cheap" oil supplies.

To ensure a healthy environment and a secure economic future, the United States needs to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. There are many alternatives to oil available today that are nonpolluting and good for the economy. In fact, many of these alternatives will make our economy stronger. We could strike it rich with "green gold," but whether or not we do depends on our understanding the true cost of oil.

Lauren Poole is a writer/editor for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. Publications include a quarterly newsletter for scientists involved in solar energy research as well as educational material for the general public. Prior to her current position, she wrote for the National Biofuels Program about alternative fuels for transportation. As a freelance writer, her articles have appeared in New Mexico Magazine and the Albuquerque Tribune.


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