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Oil-dependent U.S. should pursue energy efficiencies and lifestyle changes

It’s not too late for Americans to break their oil-consumption habits, a trio of professors in the College of Arts and Sciences said recently, but time is running short.

The faculty members conducted a panel discussion titled “Kicking the Addiction: America and Our Oil Future” on Sept. 21 in Sinclair Auditorium.

Sponsored by the Global Union, the discussion addressed oil dependency from political, economic, social and environmental perspectives.

Dork Sahagian, professor of earth and environmental science, said all fossil fuels will inevitably run out and warned that the effects of oil usage may actually be more harmful to the environment than any oil spill that has yet occurred.

Rising carbon dioxide levels result from the burning of fossil fuels and lead to global warming and eventually other problems, said Sahagian.

Insufficient pressure to develop alternatives

Sharon Friedman, who studies risk and crisis communication and the media’s reporting of environmental disasters, said the recent leak from a BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico revealed how public relations efforts often attempt to “spin the spill.”

“There are no easy answers to U.S. energy problems, but PR spin will try to convince you otherwise,” said Friedman, who directs the Science and Environmental Writing Program in the department of journalism and communication.

She also said environmental accidents show how corporations cut corners with poorly trained workers, faulty backup plans, and ineffective response and cleanup plans.

Henri Barkey, department chair of international relations, said the fact that world oil deposits are expected to last for several decades will ease the pressure to develop energy alternatives.

“Oil is the most globally integrated commodity in the world market,” said Barkey. When oil prices rise in one place, he added, they go up everywhere. As demand drives prices up, companies have an incentive to search for new deposits, and more oil becomes available.

Pick your path, “hard” or “soft”

So can the U.S. kick its dependency on oil?

Sahagian said society needs to replace fossil fuels, either through the “hard path” of changing sources or the “soft path” of using less energy by increasing efficiency and making lifestyle changes.

“There are reasons beyond saving polar bears and caribou not to drill for oil in Alaska,” he said. “If we use up our domestic oil right away, we will become truly dependent on foreign oil.

“The last man with oil under his feet wins.”

The first thing Americans must do, the panelists agreed, is to become more energy-efficient by insulating homes better, driving hybrid cars, switching to fluorescent and LED lighting and more.

But efficiency alone is not enough. No alternative energy source has yet been found or developed that can duplicate the amount of energy produced by fossil fuels.

The value of a gasoline tax

Thus, the panelists said, Americans must change lifestyles and cut consumption. A gas tax would help. “The sooner we put a tax on gas, the sooner we will come up with alternatives,” said Barkey.

“A tax would curb the rate of consumption and generate revenues that could be used to develop alternatives,” said Sahagian.

The panelists agreed that it is “not too late” for the U.S. to “kick the oil habit.”

The event was cosponsored by the departments of international relations, earth and environmental science, and journalism and communication, and by the Science and Environmental Writing Program,

Story by Buddy Stevenson '12

Posted on Thursday, September 30, 2010

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