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The rocks in a lake of oil

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: August 12, 2008 7:12 p.m.
Updated: October 14, 2008 5:02 a.m.
An allegory:

Pretend you're a lucky duck and live at - say, Lake Tahoe. You have a wonderful cabin, perched right on the shore of that crystal-clear lake. Your enchanting backyard features a cool green lawn sloping down to your own sandy beach.

The lake's renowned cool water laps with small wavelets on your shore, as your own motorboat bobs playfully on the water, secured to your very own mooring just off shore. Your lakeside existence is beautiful and serene.

But over time, things begin to change. For reasons you don't understand, the lake level begins to drop and the shoreline recedes away from your backyard. As the water retreats from your sandy shore, your motorboat is left high and dry on the rocks, where it used to happily moor in eight feet of water.

You're fearful and distressed, and conclude you must act immediately to save your paradisiacal way of life.

You decide to drill a well in your backyard to pump water into the lake to fill it back up. It seems to make sense. While the well and the drilling will be unsightly and costly, at least you'll add water to the lake: the level will rise, your boat will again float, and your paradisiacal life will be restored.

So you drill and drill and set up a well. Eventually, the well produces water, and you run your well motor day and night pumping water into the lake.

The cost of the rescue comes in higher than expected because your electricity bill goes sky high, and you're paying unanticipated costs to clean up the pollutants coming from the ground water.

But despite unexpected costs, at least you're pumping water and filling the lake. And pumping, you hope that soon the lake level will rise behind your home, your beach will be renewed, and your boat will again playfully bob up and down in the crystal water - everything restored, just as before.

But the lake's level at your backyard never does appear to rise. Your boat remains stuck on the exposed rocks.

"Where does it all go?" you finally ask yourself, after expending fortunes on pumping. "If I had pumped all that water into my own little private pond, it would have filled it right up. But instead, Lake Tahoe never rises and my boat still doesn't float."

You silly lakeside duck. When you add water from your well it spreads over the whole enormous lake, not just to your spot behind your yard. You could pump forever, but the water always seeks its own level across the entire expanse of lake.

The only way to raise your own backyard water level would be to wall off your portion of the lake behind your house - restricting your pumped water from spreading to the rest of the lake's inhabitants. But you are forbidden to do that because the lake management would cook your goose.

Because water doesn't respect property lines and borders, and because the laws of the lake disallow walling off your portion, you're in a conundrum where drilling and adding your own water doesn't improve your beach or help float your own boat. You can't drill and pump your way out.

This simple allegory illustrates the international oil market ruled by giant multi-national corporations. The oil world is like a giant Lake Tahoe. Oil flows to and from locations as demand from the world's wide expanse dictates.

Oil prices seek their own level based on international powers and pressures, and are established on the world stage, not just in our back yard.

Today, America's gasoline comes from sources as diverse as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Texas, Bakersfield, Mexico and Canada. Drilling American oil doesn't guarantee greater American supply or lower American prices, because whatever we produce here simply frees up oil from other sources to move to other locations throughout the world.

America doesn't "wall off" or nationalize its oil, so our supply and costs are subject to the dilution and price leveling of world markets.

America is in a conundrum that demands more than reactive responses to fear-based calls to "drill, drill and drill."

The rise of $4.75 gas certainly put fear into the public, and that fear-based opportunity hasn't been squandered by Big Oil and their Republican front men.

Oil-fueled politicos gravely warn, "We've got to drill in Alaska, we've got to drill offshore - or our American way of life is doomed!"

We've heard this sound loop so steadily we're almost convinced it's true. "Drill now or ‘your boat won't float' - your car won't run." Scary stuff.

But as with yesterday's "Saddam's weapons of mass destruction." today's fear-based rush to offshore drilling is a ruse with reckless consequence.

Drilling off the coast of California or Florida - or even off Timbuktu - won't drop your gas prices any more than pumping water from your back yard will raise the water in Lake Tahoe.

Offshore drilling will, however, extend the profitability of multinational oil corporations as we constrain ourselves to remain dependent on oil to "float our boats."

Today's conundrum calls for a thoughtful strategy that defeats fear-based, knee-jerk capitulation to oil interests. We wouldn't just pump water because our lake is low. Before we spend money filling a lake that appears to be leaking, there are some important questions to first consider:

Shouldn't we slow or stop the leaks in the lake before we spend fortunes to keep filling it?

Is our lake actually leaking, or is it the shoreline that's rising?

Is it indeed best to spend money filling the lake, or is it simply smarter to move our boat and adapt to the new shoreline?

Our politicians' reactive calls to "drill, drill, drill" reveals our lack of a cohesive long-term national energy plan. Before we preemptively declare oil wars on our shorelines, this time, unlike with Iraq, we need to stop and really think things through.

What American needs is energy independence, not just more oil for the whole world.

What Americans want is sustainable energy, not just more oil for the near term.

What Americans want is clean energy, not just more dirty energy.

What Americans want is long-term affordable energy, not just oil subject to the variability of world oil markets.

In the current war for our energy future, America had better think long and hard before we shoot - or drill - again.

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal. "Full Speed to Port" appears Wednesdays in The Signal. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of the The Signal.


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