Sunday, May 09, 2010

Peak Oil vs. Peak Terrorism

I love the Political Gabfest, Slate Magazine's weekly political podcast. But I do have a small quibble with a point I heard on the last episode.

Slate's chief editor David Plotz made the point that we need oil to power our carbon based economy, so, rather than ban drilling on our own coasts just to buy oil from elsewhere, we need to accept a certain degree of risk and get on with it. He's made this argument in relation to terrorism before, and I found that far more persuasive.

When it comes to terrorism, we cannot possibly stop every nutcase without accepting a police state that's so invasive it's worse than the threat posed by the terrorists themselves. We fight terrorism as best we can, but we tolerate a degree of risk. That argument makes a lot of sense to me.

Now, if we are going to remain on a carbon based economy, with gasoline dependent infrastructure, I think Plotz is right to point out that the risk will always exist, and the notion that we can't drill on our shores is similar to sending our garbage to third world countries; we're exporting the risk of environmental disaster instead of the material itself, but its morally equivalent. It's also equivalent to the regular refrain about nuclear power plants and, to a lesser degree, coal fired ones: We want the power, but we don't want the potentially dangerous or immediately polluting plant in our own back yards. On these grounds, I'd be in with the "Drill baby drill" crowd.

But I'm not. Because oil is different than nuclear power, and it's certainly different than terrorism. Nuclear power, despite its (minimal) risk and the (significant) problem of nuclear waste, is a far more efficient and less environmentally hazardous source of power. We should be shifting to it until we can create the infrastructure for cost-effective solar and wind power. So, in the case of nuclear power, we should encourage people to tolerate the risk because we want to incentivize the behavior.

In the case of terrorism, homicidal crazy people are a depressingly renewable resource. Encouraging people to tolerate risk in regards to terrorism does not encourage terrorists or eliminate them; they will exist regardless. Instead, some tolerance of risk might actually disempower terrorist. The people out on Times Square the day after the failed bombing last week showed this. A terrorist is someone who has given up on winning through attrition or conquest, and can only win by generating fear. Encouraging people to tolerate some risk diminishes that fear to some degree.

Our dependence on oil, on the other hand, is a behavior we want to stop precisely because its supply can't hope to last as long as our supply of homicidal nutjobs. Since we will inevitably hit peak oil and the price will cripple the market, fear of the dangers of pumping oil might increase the price, which then encourages investment in solar and wind by creating economies of scale. It's true that always looking for oil somewhere else is irrational (and incredibly expensive, in blood and treasure, when one considers the unstable and evil regimes propped up by oil and the wars fought over it), but this irrationality does serve to elevate the price, which is far too low. If we want to ween ourselves from oil rather than going cold turkey when peak oil hits, we should be looking for every means to raise the price incrementally. Fear of pollution causing increased production and transportation costs is a crummy way to increase the price. A tax would certainly be better. Unfortunately, it's political suicide for any politician who proposes it. There are two times when higher gas taxes will be opposed: during an economic expansion (which could be threatened by higher gasoline prices) and during an economic contraction (which could be prolonged by higher gasoline prices). So we're stuck with gas prices that don't keep up with inflation and no tax dividend to spend on creating the infrastructure to move beyond oil. Higher prices caused by searching for oil beyond our shores might help push us toward a less dependent economy. Also, when we do hit peak oil, we'll then have a reservoir of gold under our continental shelf. Even when we drive electric cars powered by solar panels and wind farms, we'll still need plastic. Why burn up all of the precious resource to keep prices artificially low, when we could benefit from higher prices and save the resource until it's far more valuable?

So, be afraid of the massive oil slick in the gulf coast. Refuse to allow another rig to be built off our shores. And if the price at the pump continues to rise, be grateful (as best you can), knowing it will make solar and wind power cost effective that much sooner.

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