Drilling down on guilt
(This appeared in Newsday’s Act2 section)
I wear a 7½ shoe. No Sasquatch here. Still, the recent passage of significant climate-change legislation has me pondering the size of my carbon footprint.
The pandemic’s forced reduction of my automobile use the past two years has been a boon to a clearer conscience regarding any role I might have played in global warming. And no fairytale: I have a gas sipper — 38 to 48 miles to the gallon.
But it is past transgressions I’m lately thinking about. My half century as a journalist involved a fair amount of air travel — not helpful to a warming planet — and there is the matter of acknowledging that the fossil-fuel industry was central in setting me up for a comfortable life. My father was a midlevel executive for Humble Oil Co. (now ExxonMobil) which, when I was growing up, was the nation’s largest producer of petroleum.
Also, my three high school summers working in the oil fields basically paid my way through college. At $1.25 an hour for a 60-hour work week, that amounted to $300 a month. A princely sum for a teenage lad at the time.
Blood money? Of course, that was in the ’50s and ’60s, and global warming hardly was on anyone’s radar. So, am I off the hook? Is there a statute of limitations on potential guilt with respect to this sort of thing?
Upon us now is a cultural conundrum tied to the direct relationship between burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gases: How to kick the oil habit and transition to other energy sources without devastating vast portions of the economy and muddling individual futures.
I was reading recently about this puzzle in my long-ago homesteads. Kern County, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, is resisting state drilling restrictions because Kern’s oil and gas money is so embedded in local budgets, funding everything from elementary schools to firefighting to libraries to mosquito control. Bakersfield, the Kern County seat and my family’s home in the mid-1950s, when my father was superintendent in charge of the local oil field, has the oil business to blame for becoming America’s most polluted city.
Then there is Hobbs, New Mexico, site of my youthful oil-field roustabout gig. In the early ’60s, my father was transferred to Hobbs, just across the Texas border in the Permian Basin, which is home to almost 40% of the nation’s active drilling rigs and recently was declared by the Environmental Protection Agency to be on the verge of “nonattainment” status for acceptable air quality.
The sugar daddy of my youth, ExxonMobil, has continued to dramatically increase oil and gas production there — by 70% between 2019 and 2021, according to the company’s most recent figures. In the Permian Basin, there are more pumpjacks — sort of the unofficial state critter — than there are Friday night football lights.
Not such a healthy situation.
Meanwhile, though, in New Mexico oil has bankrolled free colleges for residents and expanded postpartum medical care up to a year for new mothers. And I considered my father’s vocation to have been a noble one, and labor under the assumption that, in the 21st century, he likely would have helped the company move to cleaner energy.
Having come through the Depression and the war, he was conditioned toward frugality. Turn out the lights when you’re not in the room. Don’t throw out that bar of soap until it literally disappears. Take shorter showers. Wear another layer of clothes if you’re cold.
He kept the family car for 10 years. For my high school transportation, while so many classmates were tooling around in automobiles, I was gifted a hand-me-down Cushman motor scooter. Nine horsepower. My rare appearances at the local service station resulted in a 25-cent fill-up and the attendant’s wise-guy offer to include a “cough in the tires.” Since then, every car I’ve owned maxed out at four cylinders with standard transmission. All trips from the Long Island suburbs into Gotham involve public transportation.
Should I feel remorse now that I can’t deny an awareness of my long-ago part in depleting the ozone layer? No John Muir here. But hindsight is an exact science. And since I’m a believer in science, I shall endeavor to put my foot down against societal and individual objections to being greener.