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What does crude oil have in common with mountain lions and mistletoe? Answer: All three bring special good and special harm to their environs.
We love mountain lions for being mountain lions and love mistletoe for brightening homes and prospects for the Christmas season.
We hate when a mountain lion kills a family pet and hate when mistletoe sucks the life out of a stately tree, which it does.
We know how mountain lions control animal populations to sustain food supplies and we know that mistletoe makes tasty food and habitat for many species of birds and other small creatures.
Nature weaves many webs.
Crude oil makes its own kind of tangles. It creates jobs and kills wildlife. It powers trucks, ships and airplanes and takes its toll on water.
Just as plants and animals respond to an abundant or scarce food supply, countless interests lose or gain as the world price of oil climbs and falls.
The price of oil varies with the supply of crude and the demand for oil products, coupled with the prospects of changes in supply and demand.
Drilling more oil wells produces more oil, thus it tends to lower the price. Fracking of wells yields more oil, so it lowers the price.
A lower price for oil discourages drilling. A higher price spurs drilling.
The price of oil can rise with military threats to the Suez Canal that might slow shipping.
A downturn in the world economy lowers the demand for oil, so it lowers the price. A slower economy means fewer jobs, while consumers see cheaper oil. Cheaper oil cuts the cost of manufacturing and shipping products to markets, which spurs the economy.
Higher efficiency (miles per gallon) in car and truck fleets reduces demand, and so lowers the price of oil. More vehicles raise the demand and raise the price of oil.
The ties go on and on.
With all these effects jostling in the news, what happens to the world price of oil? The net result is that anyone who could tell the market price of oil months ahead would be richer than rich from trading crude oil futures. In other words, no one really knows.
The next tangle is the environment. Large oil spills in the Gulf, leaks through well casings, and salt left on the land from drilling wells harm their environs. More wells harm more places.
The places are used by a wide range of people, who see the harm. Population pressures grow and push the evolution of control technologies to reduce the harm.
New technologies include automated inspection of well casings, tracers in fracking fluids, closed-loop drilling systems, and trucking the salty wastes to engineered facilities.
Companies sell this expertise and supply better control technologies to oil well companies. The pollution control industry adds to the jobs and incomes that are sustained by oil.
Oil drillers strongly resist controls, so they can keep as much profit as possible in their own coffers. Pollution control sellers, and advocates for cleanup, work to build profits in control industry coffers. The economy is the sum of all the coffers.
See how closely the economy resembles an ecosystem. Either system is better for having diverse parts that combine to fortify the system for the long run. Still, the parts constantly badger each other.
Concerns about climate change may one day bring a tax on carbon emissions. The idea is to reduce the use of oil, which would result where the tax applies.
But less demand for oil lowers the world price of oil. The lower price spurs more new usage of oil.
The economy and ecology are surprisingly similar fields that interact in more complex ways than meet the eye. The “eco-” words are so similar for a reason.
John Bartlit is a member of New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water.