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Is America Spoiled?
After thirty years in practice, including associations with two Dallas-based law firms, an in-house stint with a major oil and gas company, several years running my own law office and a couple of terms in the Texas Legislature, I’m now in my second year — and second career — as a law school professor, teaching courses in oil and gas law and legislative process. But my overarching assignment at the Texas Tech University School of Law is helping build on and expand the great tradition of our energy law program. With the Permian Basin as our backyard, there is no better place for students seeking an energy education.
Toward that end, one of the initiatives we introduced last year is the law school’s energy law lecture series, in which we bring recognized speakers in the energy field to speak on energy topics of the day. During the lecture series’ inaugural year, we were fortunate to hear from Russell Gold (Senior Energy Reporter for The Wall Street Journal and author of The Boom), Carlos Ortiz (Director-General for Research and Talent Development for the Secretaría de Energía), Corey Goulet (TransCanada’s President of Keystone pipeline projects), Shelby McCue (retired ExxonMobil Manager), Donna Nelson (Chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas), and Christi Craddick (former Chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas).
This academic year’s lineup is equally impressive, and we kicked off the lecture series with Mark Mathis, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based media consultant and former television news anchor and reporter. Mathis produced, directed and co-wrote the 2011 documentary about the energy industry titled spOILed, which challenges the public’s assumptions about oil and other energy sources. In addition to having the opportunity to screen the movie at Alamo Drafthouse the evening before, Texas Tech law students listened to Mathis deliver our first lecture of the year, in which he continued to challenge the political and media orthodoxy of the day regarding the oil and gas industry.
From providing transportation to fueling power plants to being the basic building block in the manufacture of countless products, petroleum shouldn’t be viewed as a substance of addiction, but rather as the modern-day miracle
In spOILed, Mathis makes the provocative argument that Americans are energy-illiterate and, as a result, are in no position to offer opinions regarding their preference for certain energy sources over others. Specifically, Mathis makes the case that Americans have become so accustomed to the comforts of a modern economy — and are so equally ignorant of the explanations and reasons for those comforts — that we have effectively become “spoiled” by the modern conveniences only made possible by oil and natural gas.
One of the catchphrases used repeatedly in the debate over competing energy-source preferences is that “America is addicted to oil.” Even former President George W. Bush, himself an oilman, made that declaration during his 2006 State of the Union speech. Former Vice President Al Gore scolded Americans that “oil is dirty” and that it’s “destroying the planet.” President Barack Obama has made it clear that oil is not the future, withholding his approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and seeking to impose onerous restrictions on the oil and gas industry in a quixotic quest to save the planet from climate change.
Mathis questions these assertions by starting with the seemingly unanimously held belief that America has an addiction to oil. His rebuttal is to question why we would use such a negatively charged word like “addiction” to describe the single most important ingredient in producing our modern economy. From providing transportation to fueling power plants to being the basic building block in the manufacture of countless products, petroleum shouldn’t be viewed as a substance of addiction, but rather as the modern-day miracle that stimulates the national economy. It makes no more sense to consider oil an addiction than it does food, shelter or clothing.
Oil, natural gas and coal still provide more than 80 percent of all energy generated in America. Substantially reduce them and you would unavoidably devastate the greatest economy in the world
An addiction suggests a behavior that needs to be stopped immediately to save the life of the individual. Is that really what we believe — that we need to stop our use of oil and gas for our health and the health of the planet? If we stop our use right now, what would we propose to replace it with? How would we fuel our planes, trains, ships, tractor-trailers, trucks and automobiles? Along with the continued need for coal, how would we fuel our power plants and ensure a stable, dependable supply of electricity for industries, hospitals, businesses and homes? With what unknown feedstock would we replace the petroleum-based products that provide the essential building blocks for plastics and the vast array of manufactured goods? These questions are intended to be rhetorical, but does anyone ask them? Can anyone answer them?
The answer is that we have nothing with which to replace them, at least in any meaningful way. Oil, natural gas and coal still provide more than 80 percent of all energy generated in America. Substantially reduce them and you would unavoidably devastate the greatest economy in the world.
How has such a proposition become so acceptable, even urgent, among so many? Mathis argues that the only possible explanation is an excessive concentration on the alleged “negatives” of oil and gas, to the exclusion of acknowledging the endless list of “positives” that oil and gas have made possible. That is energy illiteracy.
Mathis screened this movie to sellout audiences across the country, especially in energy capitals, such as Denver; Dallas; Midland, Texas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Bakersfield, California. Not surprisingly, his message preached well to the choir. But persuading the already-persuaded choir was not his objective; rather, it was to equip the choir with a tool that might enable them to spread the message. With the policy initiatives that have been coming out of Washington over the past seven years, it remains questionable whether Mathis’ message has spread at all.
For some inexplicable reason, we have allowed successive generations to grow up in ignorance regarding the essential role that oil and gas have played, and continue to play, in our domestic economy. With ignorance comes the inability to make the most informed decisions regarding public policy. As with those who are doomed to repeat the history they never learned, America will willingly condemn itself to something less than first-world status by depriving itself of the oil and gas resources that remain abundant in this country. Oil is the lifeblood of this nation; we need to stop the bleeding.
About the author: Bill Keffer is a contributing columnist to SHALE Magazine. He teaches at the Texas Tech University School of Law and continues to consult. He served in the Texas Legislature from 2003 to 2007.