Since I don’t believe in “peak oil”–and regard oil “shortages” as contrivances by the oil companies and allied brokers and middlemen to run up the price–I fill my aging fleet of 1950s- and ’60s-era Chryslers with a light heart, although for longer trips these days I fill an ’82 Mercedes 240D with diesel. True, diesel now costs more than high-octane gasoline, but the Mercedes gets thirty-five miles to the gallon, whereas the ’59 Imperial ragtop and the ’62 Belvedere wagon get around eighteen mpg, which is still way ahead of the SUVs.
Part of my lightheartedness comes from the fact that gas guzzling can be a revolutionary duty, like puffing Montecristo No. 4 Cuban cigars back in the sixties as a way of doing one’s bit for the Cuban revolution. Not so long ago Citgo stations were owned by City Services, which was controlled by the W. Alton Jones family, which through the family foundation exercised–via strategic disbursement–control over much of the environmental movement, such as World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation and Worldwatch. As with the other big donors like Pew Charitable Trusts, the Alton Jones foundation cut loose any green group showing signs of disruptive militancy.
So I used to give Citgo a wide berth, until Citgo and its 14,000 gas stations and eight oil refineries (undamaged by Katrina) passed into the hands of the Venezuelan national oil company. Alas, Citgo signs aren’t a prominent feature of the landscape in Northern California or west of the Rockies. I just drove across Texas, and Citgo outlets are everywhere, as they are in Florida and the Carolinas. But even if you can’t pump Citgo, guzzling keeps up overall oil demand, and hence oil prices, thus helping not only Venezuela but also Russia, which needs every ruble it can get.
Not so long ago Chávez said Venezuela could afford to slash Citgo’s prices by cutting out the middleman and outlined a plan to set aside 10 percent of the 800,000 barrels of oil produced by the Citgo refineries and ship that oil directly to schools, religious organizations and nonprofits in poor communities for distribution. He has yet to take up my suggestion that Citgo start offering its customers gift vouchers that could be redeemed in the form of free consultations over the Internet with one of the 25,000 Cuban doctors in Venezuela. But surely it’s only a matter of time. Already he’s made a wildly popular foray into the Bronx and promised social action in the Chicago area as well as along the Gulf Coast. Maybe Bush should throw in the towel and make Chávez the head of FEMA. After all, Chávez is a military man, and Bush wants the military to take a leading role in emergencies.
You might suppose that Citgo’s competitors would strike back by raising signs, rather in the manner of some motel owners here battling the Gujarati families controlling 70 percent of the business, urging motorists to patronize “American-owned” filling stations. But that would cut out Shell and BP, and the latter, like ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil, is in partnership with Petroleos de Venezuela, Venezuela’s national oil company, and would not want needlessly to offend the government.
Since the failure of the 2002 coup against Chávez that it backed, the US government has subcontracted its public propaganda against Chávez to Pat Robertson, who, given Reverend Falwell’s fade-out, has been trying to consolidate his position as America’s leading ayatollah. Robertson promptly overplayed his hand by calling for Chávez’s assassination and, most recently, accusing him of planning to build a nuclear arsenal. Someone ought to tell Robertson that accusations pertaining to WMD haven’t got a high retail value these days. He’d be better off saying Chávez has labs working on avian flu strains designed to target Protestants of Scottish origin.
Then Chávez wrong-footed Uncle Sam again by telling Ted Koppel that the Pentagon was working on a military coup, Operation Balboa, to overthrow his government. Having learned that pugnacious verbal exchanges only increase Chávez’s popularity across Latin America, the US Ambassador in Caracas issued a low-key denial saying, yes, there was an Operation Balboa, but the plan was four years old and Spanish in origin. It had included Venezuela in “a simulated military exercise.” This takes us back to the attempted coup of 2002, in which Chávez has accused former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar of playing a role.
So fill up at Citgo, at least until the price of oil drops and Chávez decides to sell the chain to the Chinese. And what of “peak oil,” the theory that oil is about to run out? Since we’re all supposed to die of avian flu in the near future, who cares?–as there’ll be no one around to work the pumps or even drive up to them. I don’t believe in any effective role of man-made CO2 in global warming, a natural cyclical trend. I think the mad rush to throw money at the pharmaceutical companies for an avian flu vaccine is ridiculous. And increasingly, I don’t believe we’re about to run out of oil. I hang my hat on the views of Dr. Thomas Gold (founding director of the Cornell University Center for Radiophysics and Space Research) as outlined in his 1999 book, The Deep Hot Biosphere. Gold’s view, supported by many well-qualified people, is that oil doesn’t come from dead dinosaurs and kindred organic matter. Gold argues strongly that oil is a “renewable, primordial soup continually manufactured by the Earth under ultrahot conditions and tremendous pressures. As this substance migrates toward the surface, it is attacked by bacteria, making it appear to have an organic origin dating back to the dinosaurs.” Oil, Earth’s renewable resource! Ethanol is an attractive alternative, as Brazil is proving. But ethanol will be a tough sell here, so for the time being I’ll stay with the winning side.
* * *
Footnote: In my last column I said only one Democrat, Cynthia McKinney, spoke at the Ellipse during the September 24 antiwar rally in Washington. True, so far as the Ellipse is concerned, but later, during the concert, Democratic Representatives Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Lynn Woolsey and Raúl Grijalva spoke. Also marching were Representatives Pete Stark and Jay Inslee.