False Choices

In the American debate on energy versus environment, there is often a tension between environment and energy.  One Republican slogan during the 2008 election cycle was “Drill Baby Drill”, often meant in terms of allowing drilling at cost to the environment.  Yet, there are many different ways where reasonable use of limited resources can spur desired development in other directions.

Conservation under President Theodore Roosevelt was in part to protect wilds for hunting.  In Norway, oil and gas extraction money has been leveraged into a national fund to provide when the limited resources run out; the fund also hired an ethicist to make sure that investments were going toward projects that Norwegians believe in.  In the smaller Gulf States on the Arabian Peninsula, much revenue is being spent on ensuring cheap water, electricity, and economic transformation away from non-renewable resources into areas such as business development.

At the same time, environmental organizations and environmental thought has slid from conservation to preservation.  The difference is that preservationists want to leave things as they are, whereas conservationists promote wise and careful use of resources.  The UK and Norway are an example of this in the oil sector.  The UK stuck with the status quo of rapidly removing and selling oil.  Norway decided to do something different for the time – leave a lot of it in the ground.  These philosphies varied for several reasons, a primary driver being economic size.  However, the result has led to two vastly different results: UK oil imports, and Norway being the 5th largest exporter of oil in the world.  Norway also is recognized as one of the more economically equitable countries as well as an environmental leader.

What this does, is give lie to the situation presented where it is either energy or the environment.  I think ultimately the issue rests on our distrust of the political system and the vast sums of money spent to influence votes.  On an almost instinctive, knee-jerk reaction, we do not trust the government to deal wisely with, or appropriately dispense funds once they have been taken.

Instead we need to take back control over our national resources, and use them for the betterment of society.  I am not suggesting that the major energy companies be nationalized, not in the least.  Instead they need to pay their fare potion of the benefits they reap from extracting energy.  It is in the nature of organizations to complain about “unfair” taxes – lower taxes can increase shareholder returns.  The oil companies did it to Norway in the 1960s.  Yet they still came.  In Alaska they say that increased taxes will decrease exploration there, yet exploration has already been lagging.  I’m sure they’ll still be there pumping oil out in another ten year, despite the protests.  However, the ultimate questions for me, are 1) Who owns the oil?  Do the companies own the oil?  Do the American people own the oil?  2) Who should benefit from the extraction of this resource? The companies?  The environment? The American people?

Until we sit down and have an honest national debate about energy and the environment, I believe these questions will remain unanswered.  This will benefit the shareholders in energy companies, but is to the detriment of the environment and the Amercian people.


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