US Resumes Drilling on Public Land, Showing We Have Learned Nothing in 50 Years

The way to deal with the endless war over oil is to reduce demand, not increase supply.

Oil rig in the permian basin
An oil rig in the Permian Basin in the southwestern part of the United States.

Joe Raedle / Getty Image

Much to the chagrin of environmentalists, U.S. President Joe Biden recently backtracked on a campaign promise and is permitting new oil and gas development on federal lands. Reuters reports that "the Biden administration has taken several steps to tame surging gasoline prices and inflation, made worse by crude oil prices, spiking due to the war in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions on Russia by the United States and its allies."

Ukrainian climate activist and former environmental law professor Svitlana Romanko notes the war is driven by fossil fuels. "This is about energy security, climate crisis and war in Ukraine having the same roots and hence the same solution... We have had enough of fossil-fueled wars and climate-hostile wars," Romanko told The Washington Post.

In fact, we have been living with fossil-fueled wars for decades. After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, I prepared a lecture for my sustainable design class at the Creative School of Ryerson University—and for my ongoing talks surrounding my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle"—about how we got into this mess and how we can get out of it. I recycle a bit of it here.

On the Demand Side: How Sprawl Was Caused by the Nuclear Arms Race

miss blacktop and miss concrete
It was Miss Blacktop, Miss Concrete, and government policy that got us into this mess.

Wisconsin Historical Society

On the demand side—or why we need so much fossil fuel in the first place—we have to go back to the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union after World War II. Once the Russians got the bomb, everyone realized it was a bad idea to concentrate corporate offices and workers in dense cities where one bomb could take them all out. That's the main reason Miss Blacktop and Miss Concrete were cutting ribbons for what is officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Science writer Shawn Lawrence Otto wrote in his 2011 book, "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America":

In 1945, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began advocating for "dispersal," or "defense through decentralization" as the only realistic defense against nuclear weapons, and the federal government realized this was an important strategic move. Most city planners agreed, and America adopted a completely new way of life, one that was different from anything that had come before, by directing all new construction "away from congested central areas to their outer fringes and suburbs in low-density continuous development," and "the prevention of the metropolitan core's further spread by directing new construction into small, widely spaced satellite towns."
Bell Labs
The massive Bell Laboratories complex (1959 to 1962, expanded 1966 and 1985), situated on 472 acres in Holmdel, Monmouth County, New Jersey.

Gerard Garcia / Getty Images

This is why we got all those gorgeous suburban office complexes in the '50s and '60s. Kathleen Tobin described in her study, "The Reduction of Urban Vulnerability: Revisiting 1950s American Suburbanization as Civil Defense," how measures were taken so that "further development of industry (including normal peacetime as well as defense activities) should be slowed down in central city areas of highest population density and industrial areas of target attractiveness." Tobin says that "a beginning should be made in reducing population and building densities in residential areas of greatest vulnerability by adoption of program of urban redevelopment and slum clearance."

View of Levittown, New York
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Tobin quotes political scientist Barry Checkoway, explaining how white folks got subsidized mortgages to buy suburban houses and cars to get to those suburban offices:

"It is wrong to believe that postwar American suburbanization prevailed because the public chose it and will continue to prevail until the public changes its preferences... Suburbanization prevailed because of the decisions of large operators and powerful economic institutions supported by federal government programs, and ordinary consumers had little real choice in the basic pattern that resulted."

So one can conclude that much of the mess we are in—the insatiable demand for fossil fuel needed to keep a suburban lifestyle humming—is a direct result of government policy that was a response to war. But hey, the American oil companies, the Seven Sisters, controlled the Middle East oil supply, so there was nothing to worry about.

Cutting Demand: How We Got Energy Efficiency

OPEC meeting 1976
An OPEC meeting in 1976.

Bettman / Getty Images

The Western world kept happily consuming as much oil as could be pumped until after the Yom Kippur War with Israel, after which the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) got together to turn off the taps to punish countries that supported Israel. In response, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon dropped the speed limits to 55 mph and implemented other energy conservation measures.

Jimmy Carter during fireplace chat
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter during a fireplace chat.

Dirck Halstead / Getty Image

But today, everyone credits (or blames) former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, for calling for a spirit of sacrifice to deal with the energy crisis. "There is no way we can solve it quickly," said Carter. "But if we all cooperate and make modest sacrifices, if we learn to live thriftily and remember the importance of helping our neighbors, then we can find ways to adjust, and to make our society more efficient and our own lives more enjoyable and productive."

All this got swept away by Reagan, a supply kind of guy who got the Middle East taps turned back on. Soon, we had fracking and the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, and we no longer had an oil crisis, which is how we got into the mess we are in today.

Burning oil fields, Persian Gulf War 1991
Burning oil fields during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Peter Turnley / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

In the '50s, we got sprawl to help defeat the Soviets. In the '70s, we got efficiency to fight the Arabs, which was replaced in the '80s with drilling for "energy independence." In the '90s, we got battles over oil in the Persian Gulf that continue to this day.

An oil well jack pump and natural gas flare off at sunset in the Bakken oil field north of Williston, North Dakota.
An oil well jack pump and natural gas flare off in the Bakken oil field in North Dakota.

William Campbell / Corbis via Getty Images

So here we are again, coming full circle and battling Russia by proxy. And instead of taking measures that might reduce demand for oil, instead of learning the lessons from the last 50 years since the Yom Kippur War, and instead of reducing demand for oil, the Biden administration is increasing supply, offering drilling leases on 144,000 acres of public land.

Recognizing that we have a carbon crisis as well as an energy crisis, Biden could have radically increased fuel efficiency standards for everything from cars to homes. He could have taken author and educator Bill McKibben's advice and advocated for heat pumps for peace and freedom. Instead, we are getting more drilling.

The lesson of the last 75 years is that the way to deal with the endless war over oil is to reduce demand—not increase supply. But nobody wants to learn it.

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