Barry Weisberg on oil and cities

July 8, 2010

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Better City, Better Life is the theme of Expo 2010.

Our global cities contributor Barry Weisberg is in Shanghai, China for the 2010 World Expo. He reports for us as part of our continuing series, “Global Cities: Challenges and Choices.” This week, he talks about the relationship between the oil industry and the world's mega cities.

While the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to be catastrophic, it is easily matched in significance by the extent to which the government of the United States remains either unwilling or incapable of controlling the shenanigans of British Petroleum or the gushing flow of oil from the ocean floor.

But there is a third lesson in this drama that is more important. That is the way in which oil and the oil dependent auto industry have dictated the course of human settlements, and governments, in the 20th century. Whether the morphology of cities by roads, parking or gasoline distribution; the release of toxic pollutants into the oceans and atmosphere; the destruction of ecosystems; the health impacts of oil and autos; or oil inspired wars as in Iraq, the petroleum industry has been one of the most important economic-political-cultural-environmental-health factors of the 20th century. The industry is virtually un-regulated. Petroleum is a transnational business, and there is no global agency with the authority or capacity to monitor, let alone regulate, the industry. Quite the contrary, governments such as the United States have been long in bed with the oil industry.

The Shanghai World Expo Oil Pavilion blithely describes petroleum as “a marvelous treasure buried under the ground for millions of years” and lauds the “contribution made to human civilizations and urban development by petroleum and the petroleum and chemical industry.” The industry consists of both government owned (which is 95% of the oil and gas reserves worldwide) and privately owned companies and is involved in the exploration, extraction, refining, transporting and marketing of petroleum products. It is the richest industry in the world. ExonMobil has a budget, assets, land ownership and a transportation fleet that is larger than most of the countries of the world. The 2008 net profit was US$45.8 billion.

Control of oil reserves and products is arguably the central factor in the emergence of the US as a sole superpower. The premature deaths from carbon generated air pollution amount to more than a million people a year. There is no accounting for the number of oil and natural gas spills worldwide, whether in the extraction of oil, military use or war. The recent BP spill is only the latest, and surely not the last, catastrophic attack on an ecosystem by an oil company.

The not so little sister of the oil companies is the auto industry. There are one billion cars and light trucks on the road burning up hundreds of thousands of gallons of carbon products. Upwards of 800,000 new cars hit the roads in China every month and Shanghai plans to quadruple the number of individual cars in just one decade. Still, the average US daily consumption of oil is ten times that of China.

The General Motors Pavilion at the EXPO has a high-tech presentation that proclaims “Freedom of mobility brings people together.” Yet although China is pursuing an aggressive electric car program, the last thing a city needs is an increase in two person transportation vehicles as promoted by General Motors.

The oil and automobile industries have thwarted countries and cities from developing non-carbon based energy sources, public transportation, or new visions of urban life. The rural-urban-suburban structure of countries, roads, gas stations, parking, congestion, air pollution, carbon based premature death, ecosystem destruction and war are only some of the devastating consequences of the oil-auto carbon dependency. After decades of stalling, there is little or no prospect for a largely carbon-free form of ground or air transportation in the coming years. There is even less prospect, except perhaps in China, that governments will reign in the impact of the oil and auto industries on urban life, and see energy and transportation as collective, not individual choices. This is the only way that there will be humane and naturalized cities.

Barry Weisberg's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.