Is Oil the Root of All Evil?

Published March 1, 2007

Review of
Lives per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction
By Terry Tamminen
Island Press, 2006
210 pages, $24.95, ISBN 1597261017 (comes with breathing mask)

Mark Twain popularized the statement, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Lives per Gallon does an excellent job of proving that thesis. It is a book written for conspiracy theorists and paranoid pessimists who look for confirmation of their worldview.

Blaming Oil for Everything

When word got out that Terry Tamminen, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) friend and advisor, was writing a book encouraging state and local governments to lodge nuisance lawsuits against oil companies for degrading the environment, rational thinkers became nervous. Here was a senior official close to the Republican governor with a controversial, even radical proposal. Tamminen has since left office.

Lives per Gallon gratuitously excoriates the oil companies and places blame for every conceivable ill facing the world–from air pollution to thievery–on their product. Replete with homilies to past civilizations, such as the Rapa Nui, and fearsome examples of devastated ecosystems like Pacific Ocean kelp beds, Tamminen assaults not only petroleum, but modern technological-based life.

It is more than a tad ironic that Tamminen’s solutions center on the broader use of advanced technology (“natural” technology, of course), coupled with increased government intervention.

Progress Ignored

Tamminen essentially ignores our nation’s ever-improving air quality, mentioning it in only a single sentence in the book.

But what makes air quality improvements so extraordinary, dynamic, and deserving of more space in Tamminen’s book is that the improvements occurred along with increasing motor vehicle use, energy use, and economic growth.

For example, during the 1980-2005 time period–when automobile miles driven each year nearly doubled (93 percent) and national energy use similarly expanded–every measure of air pollution improved by 20 to 40 percent. Tamminen ignores that while placing blame for increased childhood asthma on petroleum-caused air pollution.

Tamminen echoes claims by regulators and activists that low-level air pollution kills thousands of people each year, but the research evidence shows this claim is implausible. While the incidence of asthma has nearly doubled in the past 25 years, air pollution cannot be the cause, since air pollution of all kinds declined at the same time. Emergency room visits and hospitalizations for asthma are lowest during July and August, when ozone levels are at their highest.

Technological Advances

While single-mindedly attempting to blame petroleum for virtually every scourge that afflicts the planet, Lives per Gallon similarly loses touch with reality regarding the solutions posed.

While every “alternative” has its environmental and economic costs, they are promoted by Tamminen with the same level of zeal as petroleum is denigrated.

For example, Tamminen asserts, “oil and auto companies refuse to invest in low-polluting products” (page 61), while in fact U.S. auto companies spend well over $20 billion per year researching petroleum alternatives, efficiency improvements, and emissions improvements. Indeed, how else could the vast improvements in air quality already achieved have come to happen, if not for investments by the automobile industry?

Overall, Lives per Gallon provides numerous isolated examples of bad situations and tries to connect each and every one of them to the world oil market. The tenuous nature of that connection is never made in an integrated fashion, but is a hodgepodge of factoids. This is like trying to explain the Amazonian rainforest by showing a few pictures of individual trees standing alone.

Oh, and that breathing mask that came with the book? At first, I thought it was supposed to represent some evidence Tamminen might have of declining air quality … but it’s actually a statement on the quality of the book.

Thomas Tanton ([email protected]) is vice president for the Institute for Energy Research.