By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

BP officials are at their least appealing when pushing off responsibility for the oil spill onto the oil-consuming public.

BP President and Chairman Lamar McKay (Photo: CSPAN)

BP President and Chairman Lamar McKay (Photo: CSPAN)

We caught a whiff of this attitude during their May testimony to Congress.

“Tragic and unforeseen as this event was, we must not lose sight of the reason that BP and other oil energy companies are operating offshore, including in the Gulf of Mexico. The gulf provides one in four barrels of oil produced in the U.S. – a resource our economy requires,’’ said BP President and Chairman Lamar McKay, testifying to the Senate.

McKay’s not-so subtle insinuations were a glimpse into the thinking of oil executives. Crudely put: The U.S. needs petrol, so suck it up.

In the two weeks since execs played the blame game on Capitol Hill, we’ve learned that this oil accident wasn’t such an “unforeseen” event. There were numerous signs of trouble, from months earlier to a series of warnings the day the well exploded, which strips away these pretensions that this was just an unlucky moment in oil exploration history.

But let’s return to McKay’s thought process. Having a teenager, I think I understand this thinking. It’s like when your kid crashes the family sedan, and blames you for not providing a more agile vehicle.

We had to hurry up and drill in ridiculous ocean depths, because the insatiable American public wanted more cheap gasoline (and our stockholders wanted quick returns)! And the feds approved of our operation!

Reasons or rationalizations, there’s a nut of truth inside this tarball. The public does, indeed, have a big, unbridled appetite for oil. And what are we doing about it?

No so much.

As this incredible onslaught of muck invades the gulf’s delicate marshes and beaches, kills birds, fish, dolphins, seafood and tourism, we are watching in typical spectator fashion. (Not counting those who’ve gone to help; and the handful of protesters who’ve turned out in New Orleans and at BP’s headquarters.) We feel bad and we’re ready to vote BP off the island. But we’re still avidly darting around in our gas-guzzling vehicles. And some of us (such as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski) are even trying to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases so that oil and coal companies can operate unimpeded by fees for their pollution and our car culture can continue in high gear until the world’s last drop of crude is processed into fuel.

Obviously we have to reduce our use of petroleum. But how? We’re not entirely to blame for our gas addiction. Our cities are set up for car traffic. Public transportation only serves a small fraction of the American public. We live over here and work over there. We need a vacation and so we fly. We can’t take a train, because, well, there is no train. (Apologies Amtrak, but I can’t even hitch a round-trip to St. Louis for the same money I can on Southwest.)

Half of our food products, meanwhile, come packaged in plastic, a petroleum product. Our soaps and shampoos contain petroleum products. Our building supplies and yard pesticides are made with petroleum. Our industrially raised meat carries a big petroleum footprint. Peeling away from this oil-infused existence would be like getting a full body wax (which incidentally is made with petroleum) with a sunburn.

However…there’s always a place to start. Here are a few ideas:

  • Don’t drive so much. Really. It sounds simplistic. But think big and you may win a little. Ask your employer to let you work at home, maybe she’ll concede to one day a week. Or form a group to look at telecommuting for your employer or business. Got a recalcitrant employer? Check out a car-pooling  service and stretch the life of your own car. Consider a hybrid. A recent Harris survey showed that only a minority of Americans were seeking this option, because of the higher upfront costs. We think they forgot to factor in the fuel savings, which can recover that money.
  • Walk more. If you’re stuck in a suburb that was carved into isolated islands of residential and commercial activities this won’t be so easy. You can walk for exercise but not to anywhere. But if you live in a small town or central city, test the distance to the nearest grocery, it’s likely walkable or you can bike there. Even suburbanites can probably get to a restaurant, a library or a grocery by bike.
  • Shed petroleum products and byproducts. You’d be surprised where they lurk. They’re everywhere, and some places we don’t really need them.  You know that petroleum jelly is a petroleum product. But did you realize there are petrochemicals in your shampoo, dish soap, hand soap and  household cleaners (unless you use only green household and personal products)?  Some of these byproducts are quite toxic, such as 1,4 dioxane, a suspected carcinogen. Watch out for sodium laureth sulfate in the ingredient label, the process to make it can leave contamination in the form of 1,4-dioxane, which won’t show up on the label. So look for SLS-free products. (Good substitutes for petroleum jelly are natural oils like grapeseed or jojoba for cosmetic uses.)
  • Get local food. There are some big food miles behind the products you’re buying, unless you live in California where so much of the nation’s fruits and veggies are grown. Becoming a locavore can support local growers who don’t have to ship so far. Chances are there’s a thriving farmers market near you, and maybe even a CSA or egg farm.
  • Go meatless, on Mondays or any day. Yes, barbecue afficionados we know it grates hearing this, but all that pulled pork gets pulled a long way.  Industrial meat needs big petroleum inputs, starting with the pesticides used to grow the corn for livestock feed to the final leg of shipping from the packing house to the grocery. Going meatless won’t hurt your waistline, unless you substitute Krispy Kremes, and it may be a culinary growth experience.
  • Read 50 Simple Steps to Kick Our Oil Habit, a book that will open your eyes about petroleum products.  This 2009 text by the Green Patriot Group was motivated to help Americans dodge dependency on foreign oil. But its only more pertinent, now that the BP gulf horror show has revealed that our dependency on domestic oil has fatal flaws as well.

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