Throughout the Winter Olympics, energy companies have been busy selling themselves to viewers. From the sheer volume of the advertising, one might think the United States was about to abandon fossil fuels entirely and that oil, gas, and coal were fighting a rearguard action.
Some of the ads, like those praising "clean coal" and linking it to national security, are simply misleading. "Clean coal" sounds good, but there is really no such thing. There are proposals to sequester the carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and keep them out of the atmosphere, but none of these has been tried on a large scale, and there are real questions whether they would work at all.
My personal favorite among the ads is the one that touts America's Oil and Natural Gas and its many benefits. These are said to include jobs, transportation, food supply, electricity, warm houses—everything that makes America great. The spokeswoman who presents the ad is attractive and well-spoken; the graphics are engaging; and the message appears to be that we really need to keep drilling for oil. I say "appears to be" because nowhere in the ad is this stated explicitly. Nor does the ad talk about where we might find the magic fuels. That might be embarrassing because the U.S. has very small oil reserves, though it does have large natural gas reserves. It is, after all, an ad, not a strategic assessment.
Watching this ad while reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's excellent natural history of four meals, I realized that, with a few changes in wording, the ad could actually present a very good case against continued dependence on fossil fuels. Pollan's first meal is a fast food lunch bought at MacDonald's. He traces in fascinating detail how the beef and chicken for the lunch are produced—using fossil fuels to make fertilizer to grow the corn to feed the animals, truck the animals from pasture to feedlot, and truck the meat from slaughterhouse to processing plant and then from processing plant to the various fast food restaurants where it is sold. In the end, he concludes that when we eat a fast food hamburger, we are indirectly consuming large amounts of oil. Most of the food that most Americans eat depends on fossil fuels. Our food system as now constituted would be in serious trouble without them.
So, and more directly, with the other benefits of American Oil and Natural Gas. Our transportation sector uses fossil fuels. Commerce depends on fossil fuels. Electricity depends on fossil fuels, though that is slowly changing. And so on.
The problem is that the supply of oil and natural gas is finite, and our dependence on oil in particular pollutes and warms the globe and makes us vulnerable to changes in the politics of the oil-rich countries. The fact that our food system would be in trouble without fossil fuels says more about the food system than it does about the virtues of oil. A politically-motivated rise in oil prices—even the threat of such a rise—sends shock waves throughout the world economy. (It did, though this is barely remembered now, in the early 1970s.)
The writers of the ad clearly did not intend to bring us up short and make us realize how precarious our position really is. And few will understand the implications of the ad in this way. But by showing how important fossil fuels are in our lives, this ad almost performs a public service—because it also shows how dependent we are on an expensive and ultimately dangerous energy source.