It is not often said that oil companies have a hard time of it. In the public imagination they’re somewhere up there with bankers. They make too much money, they pollute the environment, they exploit natural resources and they support continuing climate change.
The evidence is everywhere. Consider Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, or the myriad of less well-publicised spills like them. Think of the Niger Delta, the hegemonies that oil allows to flourish in countries like Saudi Arabia, the civil wars it perpetuates in areas like South Sudan. Oil is a major cause of evil, ergo oil companies are evil. But amidst all the talk about Shell or BP, what are we doing?
Fossil fuels are getting harder to reach. Twenty years ago, we didn’t need to drill so deeply or in such inhospitable areas as the Gulf of Mexico. Today, oil companies are going to fantastic technological lengths to maintain supply. The infamous Deepwater Horizon was a structure working in 4,000ft of water, drilling over 6 miles down. That is a phenomenal feat of engineering and it comes with risk. No matter what, accidents happen. There will always be another spill.
Still, we fly to far-flung places on holiday. We charge our iPads, iPods, mobiles and laptops. We complain about our heating bills and petrol prices, and also of new drilling projects nearby or in unspoilt landscapes like Alaska. We can’t have it both ways. The oil companies are the suppliers that meet our demands. If they are evil, they are our evil. The effects of Deepwater Horizon, the unrest in the Niger Delta, the building of pipelines in Alaska: these are all for our benefit. We are addicts, blaming the corner shop owner for continuing to sell to us.
The questions of energy security are big, difficult ones, without simple answers. But we are not helpless. We live in a democracy. We can email our MPs without leaving the comfort of our warm rooms. We can ask what they’re doing to support the shift away from oil. We can argue for support of renewable industries and we can call for the building of a base of green engineers and scientists to create those industries. We can demand renewable energy. We can call on the government to create a long-term plan for the fundamental shift in our energy infrastructure. We can make this an issue that does not get left behind in the rush for austerity.
Oil companies are well aware of the need to shift to renewables. Few industries know better the increasing difficulty in satisfying our demands for energy. If we create the move away from oil, they’ll still be there, just in a healthier form.
Needless to say, we’ll have to find another industry to vilify. Another round of banker-bashing, anyone?