The following POP QUIZ is brought to you in part by the American Petroleum Institute:
Which sounds better? A) The Obama administration should be doing more to develop U.S. oil-and-gas reserves. Or, B) The Obama administration should be doing more to deplete U.S. oil-and-gas reserves.
If you answered “A” give yourself a pat on the back. But you’ll also want to brace for impact, because you fell right into a trap built by the API and its Republican friends like House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) who endorsed development with patriotic gusto on Monday, July 4. Of course we should do more to develop our resources. Sounds great! How can any sane person take issue with that?
It’s a trick question. Let me explain: What does it mean to develop non-renewable resources? Extract, mine, dig up, disperse, burn. When we develop muscles or skills, we have more at the end of the process than when we started. When we develop non-renewable resources, we have . . . less.
Pretty sneaky, right? Now you can see that the better way to describe the extraction of America’s non-renewable resources would be “B.” Deplete.
Deplete America first! Deplete here, deplete now!
Nobody ever says that. But why not? It’s precisely what we are doing by increasing rates of drilling and mining.
This is not semantic hairsplitting. It’s an exercise in cognitive clarity. By using the word develop to describe a process of depletion, we are fooling ourselves—or allowing ourselves to be fooled. We unconsciously accept the notion that we are furthering a process of wealth creation that is sustainable, when all we are really doing is spending down a finite resource.
Excuse me, would you mind if I develop your bank account?
But wait—an economist would argue that oil, gas, and coal accomplish nothing for us if left in the ground. By extracting and burning them, we are deriving real
benefits that justify the term develop. That makes this situation fundamentally different from the mere spending down of a bank account.
Or does it? When there’s money in your account, it only shows up as a number on a computer screen. When you spend that money, you get real stuff in return. Hot diggity! You’re deriving a real benefit! Only trouble is, the number on the computer screen gets smaller and smaller until all you have left is a big fat zero, with which you can buy exactly nothing.
Or maybe not. If you’re a responsible participant in the economy, you’re not just spending down your account; you’re also adding to it by working for a paycheck, or selling stuff, or whatever you do to get by.
So from that standpoint our use of non-renewable resources is not comparable to spending down a bank account. It’s actually much worse! That’s because we can’t add to the amounts of these resources provided by nature. We can’t create more oil, coal, or gas in any significant quantities, using a process that doesn’t itself require huge amounts of energy. There’s no paycheck being deposited in Earth’s crust at the end of the week.
Depletion is depletion. When non-renewable fossil fuels are extracted and burned, they’re gone. There will be less for future generations to use. That’s the truth. Let’s stop fooling ourselves.