It now looks as if the Gulf Coast oil spill, brought to you in part by BP and the government’s Minerals Management Service, will not cause the northern hemisphere to close down. Yet, memories of BP’s former CEO, Tony Hayward, continue to stoke a national aversion to “foreign oil” and a boycott of the nation’s 10,000 BP stations (almost none of which are owned by BP). Boycotters determined to put mom-and-pop BP stations out of business have joined with the petro-jingoists who have prodded us for what seems an eternity to not buy oil produced in the Middle East.
Can using a “Buy American” bumper sticker as a Band-Aid for our oil deficit do much to help Americans wean themselves from overseas hydrocarbons? Is it even possible to “buy American?”
Think of Joe and Josephine Citizen, out there wondering what they can do, short of putting their Honda through the crusher and buying bicycles, to help free our great nation from the yoke of foreign oil. They could wear clever T-shirts to demonstrations at the home offices of oil companies, of course, but they might profit more if they leaned their placards against the wall for now, and turned off their bullhorns, while we see if there are ways to avoid purchasing oil pumped from lands beyond the seas.
Consider that the United States, with four percent of the world’s population, consumes a disproportionate slice of the world’s oil-production pie chart. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that we import almost 10 million barrels of crude oil per day of the 74 million the world produces (up from 21 million in 1960). We use 10 million barrels of our own oil, making our consumption roughly 26 percent of all crude oil pumped out of the earth.
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We buy about half of our 10 million imported barrels from four countries. They are: Canada (1.86 million barrels), Mexico (1.17), Saudi Arabia (1.08), and Venezuela (1.07). The rest comes from eleven other countries.
It is apparent, then, that we buy 3.32 million barrels of crude each day from countries that either want to repossess California, have a habit of funding Middle Eastern terrorist groups, or are led by an egomaniac who hates everything about the U.S. except Sean Penn. We could lose Canada if a bad call by a U.S. referee should cost one of its hockey teams the Stanley Cup.
Think for a minute about the companies that refine all this crude oil. The U.S. had 300 oil refineries in 1982, and today we have 148. Operating at about 90 percent of capacity, the Department of Energy says that existing refineries can produce some 631,000 barrels of petroleum products a day.
How many barrels of our daily 20 million are refined into gasoline? Each 42-gallon barrel delivers 18.56 gallons of gasoline. Put another way, gasoline makes up 45 percent of a barrel’s yield, so our daily ration produces 9.0 million barrels of gasoline. We can refine only .63 million barrels and are thus dependent on outsiders. Worse, we are likely to remain so.
The Internet teems with lists of companies that allegedly buy or do not buy oil from the Middle East. These lists are often incomplete or inaccurate. ARCO, for example, will appear on the list of non-Middle-East purchasers, but ARCO is owned by Venezuela. For my money, Hugo Chavez sucks just as loudly as the terror-supporting states.
All of the companies lumped under the Big Oil banner (Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, and Total) are multinationals to a greater or lesser degree. This makes it difficult to pinpoint an All-American company or even one that buys no Middle East or Venezuelan oil. Oil, remember, is a commodity. And no one cares where a commodity comes from if the price is right.
It is theoretically possible that Sunoco, which is Pennsylvania-based and which has refineries and stations in that state, could fill your tank with gasoline untainted by foreigners. If you lived in the Quaker State. Ditto for Conoco Phillips, which owns production, stations, and refineries out west, which are proximate to each other. But even with those companies, you have to be sure that the refinery that supplied your neighborhood station did not sully the gasoline with crude oil from another source.
Refineries get their crude oil from trucks, tankers, pipelines, or sometimes a combination of these. Crude finds its way into a pipeline from any number of wells or tank trucks. It can also come via tanker from offshore. The oil is not all owned by a single company. As well, once the oil is refined into gasoline and other products, it can be trucked to service stations that operate under different brand names. It is not in the least unusual to see trucks from the local Texaco, Shell, and Exxon distributors filling up at the same spigot.
See how silly a boycott is beginning to sound? And how complicated?
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What is not complicated is our need to both reduce consumption and find alternative sources of energy.
I myself am conflicted in a number of areas concerning petroleum. Here are a few of them:
If the globe were running out of oil, why would it not be better to use up Saudi Arabia’s oil first? We of course need to be prepared, which we surely are not, for an oil embargo. We do that by drilling on our own land and in our own waters.
You have seen the consumption/dependency figures above. They are dreadful. How then can anyone oppose, in the short term, drilling almost anywhere there is oil to be had? I wonder how many environmentalists have been to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? I have. For nine months of the year, it might as well be the moon.
I know that most protectionists have never seen a modern oil well site. These locations are not large, maybe an acre or two, and they’re far less cluttered than Central Park. And remember all those Bullwinkles that were going to become extinct because of the Alaska Pipeline? They didn’t; there are more caribou now than ever.
I cannot understand why it is not easier to build refineries. Sure, they are environmentally unfriendly in the eyes of the EPA and the Sierra Club, but the instant that the environmentalists come up with a magic energy source that will render petroleum obsolete, the refineries can be torn down and the land turned into soccer fields. Note that the new miracle source will also have to produce, as petroleum does, such things as ink, crayons, deodorant, heart valves, CDs, DVDs, tires, ammonia, dishwashing detergent, and eyeglasses. Face it, we will never be 100 percent weaned from oil.
Do I even need to mention the lunacy that constitutes our national attitude toward nuclear power? And that despite the best efforts of T. Boone Pickens, significant wind power lies decades in our future.
Can anyone out there urging the nation to convert to electric cars no later than a week from next Thursday, do arithmetic? We have about 750 cars on the road for every 1,000 of our citizens. If Harry Houdini showed up in Washington D.C. tomorrow morning and brought with him complete plans for a workable electric car, it would take 20 years for this fleet to dissipate. Come to think of it, if he showed Washington the plans, you could add 50 years to the time it would take us to become all-electric.
You may never have paused to wonder how we got so dependent on oil. We got that way because it was the cheapest and most efficient way to power most things, especially things that move. Natural gas is even cheaper, and as Pickens will tell you, we have lots of it. Natural gas can even power over-the-road trucks, something that batteries will not be able to do in your grandchild’s lifetime. Almost overnight, natural gas could become the fuel of choice for every municipal fleet of any kind.
Have you noticed a thread running through the previous paragraphs? Most every topic, for someone, has become a quasi-religious cause. Belief and hope are not strategies. Strategies require action. Could we stipulate that we could curb our bloated use of petroleum if we agreed on increasing our use of natural gas and began a nuclear-plant building program?
That would produce a lot more improvement in our lives than some intolerably misguided boycott of the innocent.