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Washington diary: Oil addiction

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

America's famed love affair with the car is spending more and more time at marriage counselling.

Texan oil worker
Texas oil has fuelled Houston's economic boom

The price of petrol, fears about global warming - yes, even in America, more and more people are afraid that the planet might explode - the daily misery of traffic jams, parking tickets and speed cameras have all become passion killers.

The love affair is really a drawn-out marriage clinging to its vows, beset by a throbbing midlife crisis.

It is high time we reflected on how much influence the marriage has had.

On the canvass of America's vast landscape, the combination of the motorcar and cheap oil have done nothing less than shape the physical appearance of the country and the way we live our lives.

From 12-lane highways, drive-in fast-food joints, strip malls and the rash of exurbs, to obesity, audio books and handless mobile phones, the car has perhaps done more than any other inanimate object to shape our environment.

Cluster of skyscrapers

By the time of his or her death, the average adult in America will have spent several years of his or her life in a car.

And the residents of Houston, Texas, spend considerably more time driving than the average American.

I was there for two days this week to host a BBC World debate on the future of oil.

It was the perfect place to confront some of the crude truths about crude and its most famous by-product, the motorcar.

Houston would probably not even exist without the car.

The city of 2.8 million people - in the next few years it is set to overtake Chicago as America's third largest city - is really a rosetta of suburbs and exurbs stretching between downtown and the airport.

Oil addiction has become too costly for our pockets, our planet and security

Downtown is a cluster of skyscrapers.

The dreaming corporate spires of Big Oil, a dozen high-rise car parks - in other cities the space might have been used for department stores or cinemas - and an alarming number of high-rise jails next to high-rise courthouses.

Here, the only people walking on the street are the homeless.

Most people stay in their cars or in their offices with the air conditioning turned down to arctic levels.

The population darts from furnace heat to freezing cold.

Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of people seem to be suffering from snivelling colds in the middle of summer.

Houston is not so much a city but a climatic disaster masquerading as one.

Small steps

Even before global warming, the place was hot - and if it had not been for the black gold of Texas, not many people would have bothered to live here.

But Bill White, the affable mayor of Houston who used to be Bill Clinton's deputy energy secretary, knows that oil wealth cannot be relied upon indefinitely, so he has tried to wean the city off its addiction to crude and turn it into the energy capital of the world.

There are 3000 energy companies here, and although most of them make their money from oil, they are also investing in wind, water and solar power.

The parking meters downtown are powered by individual solar panels.

And the mayor, who has been re-elected three times, including once with an eye-popping 91% of the vote, has built an electric tram in the city's historic district.

When I looked, the carriages were mainly empty.

But at least these are small steps in the right direction.

Houston skyline (File picture)
Houston is set to overtake Chicago as America's third-largest city

The debate took place in the splendid columned hall of the Corinthian building, a former bank now used for lavish weddings.

We had persuaded the head of Shell America, the head of Nissan America, Mayor White and two prominent energy gurus to debate the future of crude and, everyone was in agreement: we are addicted to oil.

The addiction has become too costly for our pockets, our planet and security.

Even the oil man agreed that his company Shell Oil might be called something different ten years from now.

It is not that oil is running out - this we also established is a fallacy.

But we do not need it to run out for us to change our ways.

As Sheikh Yamani, the former Saudi Oil Minister, said in 1973 during the first oil shock: "The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones."

Revolution

The question is, can we all come to the table at the same time to bring about real change?

Will the car-makers produce a mass-consumption electric vehicle with efficient batteries that people want to buy?

The man from Nissan told me that such a vehicle will be on sale in the US by 2010.

We will be recharging our car batteries much as we recharge our phone batteries.

Will governments provide the right legislation to encourage new industries or are we just going to carry on drilling?

Will the oil companies use more of their profits to invest in alternative energy?

And most importantly, will we the addicts, the consumers, go along with it?

This must be a revolution driven from below.

Unlike in 1973, today's oil shock is not caused by the suppliers but by the consumers.

In America, on average, almost every citizen owns a vehicle.

In China, it is a tenth of the population.

If the Chinese want to drive like us in the future, using the same fuel, we really will despair.

In fact it simply will not be an option.

The Chinese know this, which is why they are leapfrogging us in the development of alternative energy sources.

They simply have no choice.

As gas creeps above $4.50 (2.25) a gallon, it is easy to blame Big Oil for our big headaches.

But although the oil companies are making a mint, they at least provide a counterweight to the really BIG Oil companies in Opec, like Saudi Aramco, which is 20 times the size of Shell.

Arguably the worst thing that could happen to us now is that oil goes back to $15 (7.50) a barrel.

It would make us feel richer but it could rekindle our love affair with the car and its combustion engine, deferring more pain to the future.

The car - powered by cheap petrol - has been the love of our lives.

It is time to find another lover.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News Americawhich airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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