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 February 01, 2016
Addicted to oil---The first 10 years

 State of the Union speeches tend to be banal, or maudlin, laced with shout-outs or platitudes; lofty goals or soon-to-be-broken promises.

But on January 31, 2006, President George W. Bush made a stunning national confession: The former oilman, who had conquered his own personal addictions, staged a national intervention:

"Here we have a serious problem," he told the United States. "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world."

The President went on to lay out an ambitious multi-step recovery program, harnessing technology to develop "zero-emission coal plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean safe nuclear energy."

Ten years later, clean coal is a bust, and the biggest industry in then-Vice President Dick Cheney's home state is on the brink. The long-predicted booms in clean energy are finally happening; the financial viability of many old and a handful of new nuclear plants is in doubt; and electric and hydrogen car development is in the slow lane. Internationally, volatile oil prices and oversupply have triggered economic uncertainty and global security angst. All before the oil-supply spigots come back on line from Iran.

It all adds up to this: Despite a few notable shifts, oil is still America's Daddy -- on the roads, in Washington, and just about everywhere else. Here are some of the events in the past decade that affirmed its paternity.

Enter fracking ...

The fracking boom moved much oil production onshore. After a decade in third place, the U.S. leapfrogged Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world's biggest petroleum producer in 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration.

U.S. oil imports are one-third lower than they were when Bush called America out. Imports are just one item that oil and gas fracking have turned upside down: the coal and nuclear industries are being squeezed out of the electric market; drilling in costlier places like the Arctic is no longer cost-effective; clean energy's growth is slowed by cheap oil and gas, and small towns from Texas to North Dakota to Pennsylvania are being re-made, for better or worse.

EV speed bumps

In his 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama set an audacious goal: One million electric vehicles (EV's) on U.S. roads by 2015. But battery technology has been slow to develop, prices remain high and, of course, EV's have a hard time competing with $1.80-a-gallon gasoline.

With 400,000 EV's on the road in 2015, we made it less than halfway to Obama's goal. At the Detroit Auto Show in early January, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz moved the million-EV goalposts back to the year 2020.

And with gas prices in a trough, Americans have chosen to apply their fuel savings to ... buying more fuel. Vehicle sales set a record in 2015, with 17.3 million car or light truck purchases in the U.S. It's far easier to observe changing gas prices than a changing climate.

358 million miles an hour

American vehicles log more than three trillion miles per year, triple what we did in 1971. That works out to the equivalent of a trip to the sun every 16 minutes.

The number has stayed fairly steady for the past decade---total mileage is growing slightly, while per capita miles have taken a slight drop. Apart from a boost from ethanol (10.4 percent of the content of U.S. gasoline, according to EIA), virtually all of it is from petroleum products.

MPG rises

In the first model year after Bush's 2006 speech, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were 27.5 miles per gallon for cars. For 2016, the standard is 34.1 MPG. By 2025, CAFE standards are targeted for 54.5 mpg.

Actual gas mileage tends to be lower than CAFE numbers. But even with improving efficiency, EIA says gasoline demand rose 2.6 percent in 2015 over 2014.

Exxon falls

From 2013 to 2015, ExxonMobil slipped from third to fifth place on Fortune's Global 500 list of the biggest corporations in the world. Wal-Mart completed its second year at the top of the heap.

But the next five slots are still held by three western, and two Chinese-based, oil giants: Sinopec, Royal Dutch Shell, China National Petroleum, Exxon, and BP, respectively.

Money talks

The Center for Responsive Politics listed the oil and gas industry in 12th place in 2006 for federal lobbying expenditures at $75 million. By 2015, they were in third place at $129 million, behind only the pharmaceutical and insurance industries.

Since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision re-wrote the rules for campaign financing, hard numbers on campaign contributions have become tougher to tally.

But one group affiliated with oilmen Charles and David Koch, Americans for Prosperity, filed documents acknowledging that it spent $122 million on the 2012 election cycle. Other estimates put Koch-related groups in the $400 million range. The Kochs revealed a plan to spend nearly $900 million in the 2016 elections, from their own funds and a network of like-minded donors.

Pols listen

In the decade past, many Republican leaders not only acknowledged climate change, they joined the call for action. John McCain co-sponsored climate legislation. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney led his state to establish an ambitious climate program. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made nice with Nancy Pelosi to film a climate change TV spot.

Senate candidate Marco Rubio said he saw climate change legislation as inevitable, and urged his fellow Floridians to keep their heads above water. In 2007, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin acknowledged the threats to her state by founding a climate change "sub-cabinet."

Even non-politicians like Bill O'Reilly and Rupert Murdoch called for action and slammed climate denial. All have since renounced their past climate comments, with Gingrich calling his ad appearance "the biggest mistake of my career" when challenged over it during the 2012 Presidential campaign.

Moral of the story:

The science is overwhelming, and the on-the-ground evidence is growing rapidly, that we're falling behind on climate change action. Climate activists have scored an impressive string of victories, from the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline to the growth of wind and solar, to an agreement of sorts in Paris and the active interest of a President and a Pope. Canada's headlong rush toward becoming an Oil State was sidetracked by a change in government.

But amid the upturns and optimism, most of the reasons that prompted George W. Bush to announce America's addiction are still in full force a decade later:

Fracking may have helped create a degree of political and financial independence, but bringing fossil fuel's other baggage in-house is hardly a triumph. Fossil-free cars and trucks are still bit players. Oil companies are still five of the six biggest corporations in the world. Big Oil's hand in American politics has gotten bigger, and politicians once open to climate action have swung to denial in response.

A favored goal in climate policy these days is to keep oil in the ground. Climate science tells us that that is essential to minimizing climate impacts. It's an unspeakably lofty goal.

But climate activists make it even more difficult if there's no recognition of the inertia, economics, ideology and self-interest that stand in the way. We're still addicted.