It is impossible to predict how the war in Ukraine will end. I fervently hope it’s with a free, secure and independent Ukraine. But here is what I know for sure: America must not waste this crisis. This is our umpteenth confrontation with a petro-dictator whose viciousness and recklessness are possible only because of the oil wealth he extracts from the ground. No matter how the war ends in Ukraine, it needs to end with America finally, formally, categorically and irreversibly ending its addiction to oil.
Nothing has distorted our foreign policy, our commitments to human rights, our national security and, most of all, our environment than our oil addiction. Let this be the last war in which we and our allies fund both sides. That’s what we do. Western nations fund NATO and aid Ukraine’s military with our tax dollars, and — since Russia’s energy exports finance 40 percent of its state budget — we fund Vladimir Putin’s army with our purchases of Russian oil and gas.
Now, how stupid is that?
Our civilization simply cannot afford this anymore. Climate change has not taken a timeout for the war in Ukraine. Have you checked the weather report for the North and South Poles lately? Simultaneous extreme heat waves gripped part of Antarctica this month, driving temperatures there to 70 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the average for this time of year, and areas of the Arctic, making them more than 50 degrees warmer than average.
Those are not typos. Those are crazy superextremes.
“They are opposite seasons — you don’t see the North and the South (Poles) both melting at the same time,” Walter Meier, a researcher with the National Snow and Ice Data Center, recently told The Associated Press. “It’s definitely an unusual occurrence.” And last Friday, no surprise, scientists announced that an ice shelf the size of New York City had collapsed in East Antarctica at the beginning of this freakish warm spell.
It was the first time humans observed “that the frigid region had an ice shelf collapse,” The A.P. noted, adding that if all the water frozen in East Antarctica melts, it would raise sea levels more than 160 feet around the world.
For all these reasons, I have been disappointed to see President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken doubling down on our oil addiction, rather than tripling down on renewables and efficiency. Apparently spooked by bogus Republican claims that Biden’s energy policies are responsible for higher gasoline prices, his team has gone begging to some of the biggest petro-dictatorships in the world — Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia, in particular — to get them to pump more oil and push down gasoline prices.
The truth is, even if we let U.S. oil companies explore for oil in every national park, the near-term effect on gasoline prices would not be all that significant. As CNN Business reported last week, in the past decade, the boom-to-bust U.S. oil industry spent tons of cash to fund all-out production growth, helping to keep prices low, but “sustaining profits proved elusive. Hundreds of oil companies went bankrupt during multiple oil price crashes, leading investors to demand more restraint from energy C.E.O.s.” So today, most U.S. oil company executives and investors “don’t want to add so much supply that it causes another glut that crashes prices. And shareholders want companies to return excess profits in the form of dividends and buybacks, not reinvest them in increasing production.”
The country with the most cheap, spare and flexible capacity to influence global oil prices in the short run is Saudi Arabia. But Russia is also a big player. That’s why just two years ago, President Donald Trump was begging Saudi Arabia and Russia to dramatically cut their production, because oil had fallen to around $15 a barrel on world markets — badly hurting U.S. oil companies, whose cost of extraction was $40 to $50 a barrel. The price collapsed because Saudi Arabia and Russia became embroiled in a price war over shrinking market shares in the pandemic.
Now Biden is begging the Saudis to dramatically increase their production to bring prices down. But the Saudis are mad at Biden for being mad at them for murdering the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — and are reportedly not taking Biden’s calls.
Image Credits: Xinhua/Lehtikuva/Jussi Nukari via Getty Images