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Yes, We can End the “Tyranny of Oil.” Or Can We?


Rubin Patterson, Ph.D.
Guest Column


“The country that harnesses the power of renewable energy will lead the 21st Century,” President Obama declared on March 12, 2009 in an address to the Business Roundtable. But back on January 3, 2008—then Senator Obama announced, on the presidential campaign trail in his history-making victory speech as the first African American to win the Iowa Caucus—that he will “free this nation from the tyranny of oil once and for all.”


I wonder two things about Barack Obama with regard to these two statements he made. First, to what extent did he appreciate that America could only harness the power of renewable energy and thereby lead the 21st Century if and only if the nation could be freed from the tyranny of oil? Second, did he not understand that only the American people themselves could free the nation from the tyranny of oil? 


According to a 2009 report, three out of four Americans want the government to provide much more support for renewable energy research, development, and commerce. That is the good news. The bad news is that talk of favorable public sentiment and formidable public financial support for renewable energy, no doubt, scares the bejeebers out of Big Oil; that is, the major oil giants such as Exxon-Mobil, Shell, BP and Chevron. Big Oil extols competition as a capitalist virtue, but at the same time Big Oil is out to crush anyone seeking either to enhance meaningful competition to its form of energy or to stiffen regulation of the industry.


Big Oil is simultaneously in a sweet spot, with staggering profits, an addicted public and unrivaled political power while, at the same time, the industry is in the midst of declining oil supplies. In 2008, Exxon-Mobil, Shell, BP and Chevron had profits exceeding $116 billion. However, the world is now experiencing a four-to-one burn-to-find ratio.


In other words, we are using four barrels of oil for each new barrel found. Big Oil is perfectly satisfied keeping us addicted to a declining 19th-Century resource rather than getting out of the way so that we can get on with 21st-Century renewable sources of energy.


Efforts to eliminate subsidies for Big Oil (and Big Coal, too, for that matter) and to plow those subsidies and others into renewable initiatives tend to be futile. Notes Anthonia Juhasz in The Tyranny of Oil, “Through lawyers, lobbyists, elected officials, government regulators, conservative think tanks, industry front groups, and full-force media saturation, the oil industry uses its wealth to change the public debate and, more often than not, achieve its desired policy outcomes.” In other words, breaking the back of Big Oil is impossible – or is it?


It is useful to note that a century ago America took the unlikely action of breaking up the biggest and most powerful corporation in the world: Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. By the 1880’s, Standard Oil was controlling 90 percent of all US refining and 80 percent of the marketing of oil products.


What’s more, by 1911, Rockefeller’s wealth was 2.5 percent of the US economy, which would be over $350 billion today. Imagine breaking up a corporate entity so powerful today! As challenging as that would be, to do so still would not be as difficult as breaking the back of Big Oil and ending its tyranny in America today.


Transportation by means of cars, trucks, trains, and planes accounts for nearly 70 percent of all the petroleum consumed in America today. Think back 100 years ago to an America when a very tiny percentage of the population drove cars and trucks and obviously no one was flying around in airplanes.


In other words, oil did not lubricate the comfortable lifestyle to which Americans have grown accustomed. “Convincing” the oil-addicted American public – mind you, without a ready-made and structured viable option – to give up on oil today is about as unlikely an outcome as simply trying to counsel drug addicts to simply put down their drug of choice because drugs are not good for them.


Therefore, as I said at the outset, I wonder if presidential candidate and Senator Obama realized what he was saying when he declared that he would end the tyranny of oil in America. Presidents can only lead transformative change under one of two conditions: (1) when they can illustrate to the major industries such as Big Oil and Big Finance that the changes are in their economic interest or (2) when the people themselves demand this transformative change.


As it stands now, we don’t have either one. Maybe it isn’t so much that we need better leaders, but rather we need a better people. (I know that stings a little!) In other words, Obama can’t bring change – only we can bring change.


If we just advocate for an ecologically friendly economy and the associated green-collar jobs without the simultaneous effort to break the back of Big Oil, we are just whistling past the graveyard. We cannot get to where we want to be with just a pro-green president – which is what we have in President Obama – and a Democratically-controlled Congress; rather, we need a pro-green president and a Congress committed to simultaneously drowning Big Oil and birthing a whole new ecologically friendly industrial sector – which is what we do not have.


Getting Congress to fiercely take on Big Oil must start with mass education focusing on environmental issues in general and the renewable energy issue in particular and, then, the initiation and follow-through of a social movement that is bigger and stronger than any we have witnessed in the last one hundred years. Thus, our mission is clear – let’s get to it!


An Announcement to Green Column Readers:

Dorceta Taylor, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan will give a talk at The University of Toledo in the Student Union, Room 2584, on February 25 between 3:30 – 5:00 PM. The event is open to the public, and admission is free. Her talk is titled “Environment, Social Inequality & Sustainability: Understanding the Past and Working Towards the Future.” Taylor is a national leader in efforts to get minorities interested, prepared, and credentialed to take up leadership positions in environmental organizations and to help shape environmental movements, policy and commerce. For more information, contact the UT Africana Studies program at 419.530.7252.


Rubin Patterson, Ph.D., is professor of Sociology and the interim director of Africana Studies at The University of Toledo.


Copyright © 2010 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/31/14 06:45:39 -0800.



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