Alternative Fuels

I recently read an article about Nigeria’s oil situation in the February issue of Vanity Fair. This was a real eye-opener.

In brief, Nigeria is the fifth-largest oil producer in the world. Its economy depends largely on the sale of oil to foreign multinational corporations. But its corrupt government is illegally siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars a year from this industry. Communities in the Niger Delta, where most of the easy-to-access stores of oil are found, see none of the oil money since government officials are keeping it for themselves. These communities lack safe drinking water, electricity, and sustainable economies. Their people rely on a subsistence fishing economy to survive. Needless to say, they are very, very, unhappy. They have taken to committing various terrorist acts, such as kidnapping foreign oil workers and sabotaging oil pipelines, in order to make themselves heard.

The question is: Why should we, as First World consumers, care about what’s happening in yet another African country? I believe the first concern, indeed the only concern, is the human rights abuses these communities are suffering due to the negligence and corruption that their politicians are perpetrating. However, I realize that for many people the issue of human rights isn’t enough to prompt action.

Consumers “think with their wallets”, and here’s the important thing to remember: “Nigeria is the fifth-largest producer of oil in the world”. What do you think will happen to oil prices if Nigerian oil production is completely disrupted, which is the aim of these terrorists?

Recently, George W. Bush spoke about ethanol as a viable alternative fuel source in his State of the Union address. Without getting into a debate about whether or not ethanol is, indeed, a viable alternative, the significant thing is that Bush is trying to move America away from its dependence on foreign oil. There are several obvious reasons for this, but I choose to focus on the human ones.

Fossil fuels, as we all know, contribute to global warming and pollution. But what a lot of us don’t know is that all of the easily accessible reserves are in or near countries that have questionable human rights records. For the most part, these countries are characterized by one or a combination of oppressive regimes, corrupt political systems, heavy-handed militaries, and poverty in all its myriad forms. Because of the huge wealth associated with oil, politicians in these countries are unable (or unwilling) to resist the lure of easy money in the form of bribes from foreign companies and embezzlement of public funds.

So what do alternative fuels have to do with all this? As they are discovered, developed, and become viable alternatives to fossil fuel, we will become less dependent on oil from these countries. Oil prices will fall, and there will be less incentive for these countries to ignore the increasingly louder cries of their people. These countries will realize that it is more profitable to develop the human capital in their countries; it will benefit them more in the long run, since human capital is inexhaustible. Education can provide real, long-term economic and social improvements.

But will these countries realize this if oil prices drop? Or will they try even harder to hold on to their unsustainable economy of corruption? Will oil prices drop, or are we too dependent on it?

I think we’re approaching a crossroads where the technology for alternative fuels is becoming viable, and the price of oil is increasing. Which way we go may depend on the foresight of governments, both here and in the developing world, but it will depend to a larger extent on the will of the people and which way we want to go.


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