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Bubble, bubble, oil and trouble



Last week, exactly 100 years after the Spindletop gusher ushered in the start of the modern petroleum age, the world's largest offshore oil rig sank off the coast of Brazil. Owned by the Brazilian state oil giant Petrobras, the platform had been pumping about 80,000 barrels of crude oil per day -- the same amount that flowed from the Texas gusher a century ago.

It was on Jan. 10, 1901, that Anthony Lucas, an Austrian-born mining engineer, and his crew lowered a drill bit to the bottom of a 1,000-foot hole at Spindletop, Texas, a small knoll just south of Beaumont. They were using the new technique of rotary drilling when, suddenly, the well started sputtering "drilling mud" -- a liquid concoction of water and rock cuttings. That eruption was followed by a geyser of oil, gushing 200 feet above the Texas plain.

Until then, a big producer disgorged perhaps 50 barrels a day. The Spindletop well produced 1,600 times that amount. The boom was on.

Since that day, oil and the products derived from it have defined the world in which we live and, especially, the American civilization it continues to power. More than 85 percent of the fuel used in the United States -- fuel that creates electricity, fills our cars and heats and cools our homes and offices -- comes from fossil-based sources: oil, coal and natural gas. And Americans are fuel gluttons. With just 5 percent of the world's population, we consume nearly 25 percent of the world's oil supply.

Since that day, "Big Oil" also has had a stranglehold on American politicians. And it's only gotten stronger since George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, two former oil company executives, stole into office. First came the new administration's flip-flop over regulating carbon-dioxide emissions, a chief contributor to global warming. Soon will come the attack on Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- a potential desecration of a 19-million-acre expanse of pristine wilderness for about 3.2 billion barrels of economically recoverable crude oil. That's less than America consumes in six months.

For decades, environmentalists have argued about the need for clean, renewable energy sources in order to counter the smog and acid rain produced by fossil-fuel combustion; to protect fragile habitats; and as insurance against the day the oil runs out, which is likely within 100 years. More recently, evidence of severe climate change due to the "greenhouse effect" has caused even more voices to be raised against our reliance on the polluting fuels to which we have become addicted.

The alternatives already exist. Solar and wind technologies have been proceeding at a rapid pace over the past 25 years, even without the tax credits for research that were so niggardly rescinded during the Reagan "revolution." Sunlight can be directly converted into usable energy through a variety of processes. A solar array of photovoltaic cells can cheaply convert light into electricity to meet demands for power without polluting the air, and rooftop solar panels can generate electricity or (with different materials) heat homes.

Wind energy is also clean and getting cheaper all the time. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the world's winds could provide as much as 5,800 quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) of energy each year, or more than 15 times the world's total energy consumption in 1992.

Fuel-cell technology has been used for years by NASA to generate electricity and power spacecraft without combustion. Fuel cells also offer a clean alternative for powering our automobiles without the toxic fumes that are choking our cities and raising our planet's surface temperature.

And maybe it's worth pointing out to the White House that, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, by simply increasing the average fuel efficiency of new cars, SUVs and light trucks from 24 to 39 miles per gallon over the next decade, we could save 51 billion barrels of oil -- more than 15 times the yield from the Arctic. But then again, probably not; it's unlikely that anyone there is listening.

The sinking of the Petrobras platform should be an omen, conjuring the beginning of the end of the petroleum era. But chances are the oil worshippers, just like their seagoing forebears -- who hunted whales to near-extinction for the lamp oil and lubricant its blubber supplied to early Americans -- will continue to pump and pulverize until the last whale, er, well, has run dry. It needn't happen that way. But it probably will.

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