Ecological disaster. Fuel shortages. States of emergency. This is our world in 2016. This is oil addiction.
Last Friday a major gasoline pipeline connecting Houston with New York sprung a leak. At least 250,000 gallons of gasoline spilled before the leak was caught and the pipeline shut down. Currently more than 500 employees of Colonial Pipeline — the owner of the pipeline — are working around the clock to contain the spill. However, progress is slow due to harmful vapors coming from the spilled gasoline that could “be harmful if inhaled or potentially flammable if they reach certain concentrations.” While the spill appears to be contained — for now — there are still concerns that if the weather takes a turn for the worse, this spill could reach the nearby Cahaba River.
But that’s only the half of it.
This week the governors of Alabama and Georgia issued executive orders declaring a state of emergency as a result of the spill. They’re concerned about fuel shortages and the effects that will have on locals and their economies. And rightly so, as lack of fuel, or even high fuel prices, can have crippling effects on nearly every aspect of an economy.
All of this highlights the inherent danger of our overwhelming reliance on oil for transport. First off, we have to acknowledge that this wasn’t a particularly large spill. 250,000 gallons isn’t even enough to fill a single Olympic-size swimming pool. It was also caught fairly quickly and occurred during weather conditions that allowed for the spill to be quickly contained (for now).
Yet despite all of that, the ramifications of this spill are serious. On the environmental side, there are concerns over contaminated drinking water, and the effects on wildlife and vegetation could be felt for years. On the economic side, just a minor spill like this has the potential to raise gas prices by as much as 20 cents a gallon in some places and even lead to complete fuel shortages in others.
If a bigger spill were to occur, due to extreme weather conditions, terrorism, human error, or just bad luck, the consequences could be dire. A larger spill would result in a larger spike in oil prices, which could result in a recession, as 10 of our past 11 recessions were preceded by an oil price spike. Or even worse, entire regions of the United States could be left without fuel or be forced to ration it, as we did during the 1973 oil crisis. Rivers could become contaminated, and drinking water for whole populations would be at risk. And that’s not even mentioning the toll a larger spill would have on local wildlife and ecosystems.
All of this begs the question: Why do we continue to bet everything on a single, easily disrupted resource? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to diversify our transportation fuel system? If our cars and trucks ran on multiple fuels — ethanol, electricity, natural gas, hydrogen, etc. — we could just start using more of the other fuels until the shortage was remedied. In addition, we’d be transporting less oil, and all of those other fuels are much less harmful to environment in the event of a leak.
Follow those steps, and when (not if) a disaster like this occurs again, we can ensure we aren’t caught unprepared.