Oil addiction: Nation needs to confront more than tar balls

We haven’t had to think much about them in recent years. But the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has once again brought them front and center. Will tar balls start showing up on South Florida’s beaches in a few months, when the Loop Current carries the oil into the Gulf Stream? How will they affect tourism? Will they pose a hazard to people’s health?

What a difference a couple of decades make. There was a time when tar balls were considered a normal hazard. A walk in the sand invariably resulted afterwards in the liberal application of mineral spirits to the skin to remove the goo. Some people even took to tying plastic grocery or newspaper bags to their feet to keep the tar off them during daily strolls.

The blame for the tar balls generally was placed on ships violating U.S. law when they purged their bilges, and even on oil leaking from sunken ships that were torpedoed off the Florida coast during World War II by German submarines.

But a funny thing happened not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The tar balls began to disappear. This wasn’t a coincidence, it was cause and effect. The Soviet Union no longer could afford to prop up the Cuban government, and the steady visits to Cuban ports of poorly-constructed and carelessly-crewed Soviet-era oil tankers and other ships came to an end.

Sure, a few tar balls still show up on South Florida’s beaches, but the problem today is nothing like it was during the Cold War. This should serve as an object lesson to anti-capitalists who blame every environmental problem on evil, private-sector corporations. The worst environmental degradation during the last hundred years took place in countries enthralled with Marxism. Remember Chernobyl?

The apparatchiks running the show in the Communist Bloc weren’t constrained by a free press or a Western-stye tort system. The BP oil spill in the Gulf demonstrates the dangers in offshore drilling. Clearly, better regulation is necessary. But if you want to guarantee even greater environmental disasters, nationalize the oil industry.

The Gulf oil spill has politicians in high dudgeon declaring the United States needs to end its addiction to petroleum. They’re correct. The price of our dependence on oil is enormous, and includes huge military costs along with the environmental. To protect the flow of oil, we’re spending billions of dollars borrowed from China to deploy aircraft carrier battle groups to the Persian Gulf.

The policy prescriptions advocated by the politicians to deal with the nation’s oil addiction, however, demonstrate they are either stupid, venal, or most likely both. The ethanol scam is among the biggest boondoggles. It’s designed not to cut our dependence on oil, but to win political support from Midwestern farmers, particularly during the quadrennial Iowa Caucuses.

But there are plenty of other idiocies to go along with ethanol. How about the half million dollars in federal stimulus money given to Florida to subsidize the conversion of 100 hybrid automobiles to plug-in electrics? Or the federal tax credit for golf carts? Or the federal tax credit for electric cars? These vehicles, which make no economic sense whatsoever, actually could increase carbon emissions if their batteries are recharged in places where electricity comes from coal-fired power plants.

Federal mileage standards, by themselves, amount to another policy failure. Fuel efficient vehicles enable people to drive more miles for the same price, thus encouraging them to live in places where land is cheap and where they can buy bigger houses, which require more fuel to heat and air condition. Mileage standards keep going up, but so does oil consumption.

An increase in the price of petroleum products is the only thing that will force the nation to confront its oil addiction. Any policy prescription that doesn’t include a gradual increase in the gas tax amounts to political blather. The tax could be offset with a reduction in other levies, such as the payroll tax.

American service personnel are dying in order to protect Americans’ right to buy cheap gasoline, but the politicians don’t seem to care, and neither does most of the driving public.

Commentary by retired Editorial Page Editor Kingsley Guy appears on alternate Sundays. Readers may e-mail him at .

Oil addiction: Nation needs to confront more than tar balls

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