Water And Oceanography

Curing our Hydrocarbon Addiction



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They say everything is bigger in Texas. Certainly the state is the second largest in the United States in both population and land area; and Texas steer, well, let's say you just don't want to get up close to one unless you know what you're doing. But one thing that Texas is well known for is its long love affair with gigantic pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

Driving around the prosperous north Dallas suburbs, I am constantly amazed at the number of Hummer sightings on any given day. The Hummer, a U.S. military vehicle retooled as a civilian SUV, starts at approximately $56,000 dollars and averages 8-10 miles per gallon of gasoline. Widely recognized as the premiere symbol of status and wealth, these tank-like behemoths will undoubtedly be remembered by history as the symbol of conspicuous excess in the 150-year era of fossil fuel.

However, not all large vehicles that hog the highways are driven for status only. Agricultural states, particularly in the South and Midwest, rely heavily on heavy-duty trucks and utility vehicles for their farming and ranching activities. These vehicles, along with traditional farming equipment such as combines and tractors, are essential. Without them, modern-day farming methods simply could not be sustained. The same could be said of other industries as well, including construction.

Ingrained in the collective American psyche is a deep-seated attachment to the automobile. Since Henry Ford first produced the iconic Model T back in 1907, Americans have always held sacred the ability to purchase one's own car for personal use. It encapsulates the freedom so dear to Americans; the feeling of being able to go wherever you want whenever you want.

In 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act which formally began construction of the intricate interstate highway system we see today. As a result, U.S. citizens became more mobile, and homes and jobs began to inch out beyond the city limits. Suburbanization took hold in the 1960s, ever expanding into new countryside. So far out have our suburbs sprawled, a new word has entered the lexicon of late: "exurbs," or extra urban.

So what will the impending energy crisis bring? Will Americans finally concede their love affair with the automobile, or will we find an alternative to oil in time to avert disaster? Or will civilization as we know it suddenly come to an abrupt, unexpected end?

Some believe we have no viable alternative to oil at present. Others believe hydrogen is the answer, or electric vehicles powered by nuclear energy, or perhaps biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol. But all have their challenges in logistics and infrastructure as well as their political and economic ramifications. How long it will take American industry to address these issues and get us on a certain course toward a renewable energy future is anybody's guess.

Because of skyrocketing gasoline prices, interest in smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles (including hybrids) is growing by the day. But is it possible that the future will see a return to large vehicles once again? If we can get the hydrogen economy off the ground by 2015, with new hydrogen vehicles in a price range accessible to a majority of Americans, we might just be able to skirt the death of the beloved pickup truck and sport utility vehicle. But until that time, Americans will have to adjust to significant changes in the way they work and live due to the energy crisis that is already beginning to show its ugly head (particularly in the form of skyrocketing gas prices). Furthermore, they will have to come to terms with the unthinkable: we can no longer consider our energy sources as cheap and abundant.

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