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Gary Horton: Don't 'Drill baby, drill'

Posted: May 4, 2010 2:49 p.m.
Updated: May 5, 2010 4:55 a.m.
How many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they are forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
The answer is blowing in the wind.
- Bob Dylan

The moment crude oil from the crippled Deepwater Horizon oil rig hits Louisiana and Florida coasts will be the moment Sarah Palin's pseudo-patriotic, fist-pump chant, "Drill baby, drill!" goes extinct, like the millions of dead and dying fish caught in the tragedy.

That illogical, naïve notion of "Big Oil as our friend" will also die, as millions of Gulf Coast Americans learn what Santa Barbara residents learned in 1969. Cheap oil isn't cheap when it kills and fouls things precious to you.

That's a hard lesson that stays hidden from most Americans. We prefer to ignore the true costs of fossil fuel dependence until we personally, directly suffer consequences.

I remember decades ago in an economics class at Calfiornia State University, Northridge, we considered how cigarettes, then seemingly pricey at a $1.50 a pack, were in fact tremendously subsidized and cheap.

Once all the hidden costs of lung cancer, emphysema, second-hand smoke and productivity losses were added back in, the true cost of smoking was an astonishing $6.50 a pack. Duke University estimates the cost of smoking in today's dollars at a cough-out-your-lungs $39.88 a pack.

It's the same deal with oil and coal. The price at the pump - and on our utility bills - is far, far less than the true price we're really paying, once the hidden costs get added in.

Oh, we moan about three- or five-dollar-gallon gasoline. But as high as those prices seem, like smoking, they are unrealistically cheap. Many authorities estimate the true cost of gas as a jaw-dropping $10 - 12 a gallon. And that just reflects U.S. tax subsidies to Big Oil and America's cost of funding a military primarily charged with making the world safe for oil extraction.

Wait - there's more.

The recent Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, and last month's Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion teach us that fossil fuel dependency comes at costs not measured in solely in dollars.

Fossil fuels are paid with human lives. Eleven workers died at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Twenty-nine coal miners died at the Upper Big Branch mine.

Every year, the United States loses about 30 coal miners to mining accidents. Industrial giant China loses more than a 1,000. The U.S. sees 4,000 new cases of black lung every year. Add in China for another 10,000.

America has sacrificed 4,394 soldiers in the Iraq War. After years of "fighting for freedom," last year Big Oil moved back in. Today, Exxon, Shell and BP may be considered the prime beneficiaries of that war.

That adds up to a lot of death and dying powering our cars and lighting our homes. It's bad enough we accept huge U.S. incentives and tax subsidies to Big Oil. We taxpayers pay those perks, you know. But it's far worse when we casually trade sacred blood as an energy lifestyle choice.

It seems strange that in a technologically advanced age capable of storing entire libraries on a hard disk, in an era when e-readers will soon replace newsprint - in such an era of efficiency, we still find ourselves digging our fuel out of holes in the ground. The fuel of the 1800s and the 1900s, remains by and large the fuel of today. So much is new and efficient, save our energy sources.

But in Europe, where oil subsidies are lower and the appetite for war less enthusiastic, the move towards alternative energy is far more advanced than here. German utility companies complain that electric windmills are dropping power costs so quickly they threaten the financial return on their old coal- and oil-powered power plants.

We could use that same problem, if only we could break our deal-with-the-devil fossil fuel addiction. So much changes when we finally kick the habit.

How many wars will we fight securing the wind that races through our wind farms? How many soldiers will die defending wind turbines in Texas, California or out on the plains?

And when a wind turbine goes bad, how many men will be blown up or crushed in the explosion that never happens? How much ocean life will be lost as the blades simply slow and hang sadly silent?

How many dollars are shipped overseas, as it's local wind and not foreign oil powering our electric cars and lighting our cities? How much smog will we breath when windmills energize our electric lines?

As the Deepwater Horizon tragedy takes its full toll, we'll see in plain view more of the previously hidden costs of subsidized fossil fuels.

"Drill, baby, drill" will grow closer to beaing as dead as dinosaurs, and America will move closer to smarter answers.

The answer is blowing in the wind.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Full Speed to Port!" appears Wednesday in The Signal.


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