Solar Impulse II is attempting to fly around the world. A year ago it was waiting for favorable weather to complete the first leg of its Pacific Ocean crossing. That favorable weather was a long time coming and it wasn't until early July that the plane landed in Hawaii. After the longest layover in aviation history (just one of the many records it has broken), it took off ten days ago to complete the second leg, which it completed successfully three days later. A poet might say the earth had prepared its own present for Earth Day.
If asked "what is the cost of oil?" most people's answer would be based on the price they pay to fill up their vehicle. Depending on where you live, your answer may be high if taxes are high in your country, or low if you live in an oil-producing country that subsidizes the cost. Either way you have probably benefited from the recent price drop. If asked "what is the true cost of oil?" most economists, market analysts and stock brokers would quote that day's trading price expressed in US$ per barrel. Both ways of measuring the cost of oil are, superficially, valid. In the nine months that Solar Impulse II was lain-over in Hawaii, the cost of oil dropped significantly. But the plane didn't care: it doesn't use a drop of it.
What is the true cost of oil? Once in a while a catastrophe grabs headlines and we think, temporarily at least, about the cost of oil to the environment. The best recent example is BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion and subsequent spill in the Gulf of Mexico. On the fifth anniversary a year ago we also remembered the cost to human life (eleven workers died), to local economies (fishing and tourism were severely impacted) and to wildlife.
The fictitious, 1960's US television comedy, The Beverly Hillbillies, was based on the belief that discovering oil means that you instantly become rich. The reality is often different. Angloa is the second-largest oil exporter in Africa. Yet the recent price drop forced it last month to seek bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, the continent's largest oil producer, Nigeria, is suffering from an acute shortage!
Oil can have a political cost too. Another major oil producer, Venezuela, is suffering both political and energy crises at the moment. It just placed government workers on a two-day working week to conserve energy. As the value of oil has fallen, the cost to fill up a vehicle in oil-rich Saudi Arabia has risen. So afraid is that government of the potential political cost that it just announced very ambitious reforms aimed at reducing its reliance on oil. But the best example of political cost was just seen in Brazil. While President Dilma Rousseff has not, herself, been implicated in the scandal surrounding state oil company, Petrobras, that scandal has helped fuel her unpopularity. Brazil's lower parliament voted to proceed with impeachment hearings against her a few days ago. Upper parliament will vote this month. Although the Olympic Flame was just passed to Brazil in Greece, she may be suspended from office by the time of the summer Olympic Games in August.
The Huaorani people have lived on oil-rich land in Ecuador for thousands of years. When The Beverly Hillbillies was at the height of its popularity, Texaco (now Chevron Texaco) drilled for the oil. Unlike the family in the TV sitcom, the Huaorani people fought ferociously against the extraction of their oil. The outcome was that they were moved involuntarily off their land to Christian missions. Unable to cope with the sudden change in lifestyle, many became substance abusers, criminals and prostitutes. The true cost of oil to the Huaorani people has been little reported in the mainstream media in those fifty years.
Some years ago I was staying in a Huaorani community in Ecuador. One morning this elder was involved in a dispute. He noticed me photographing the altercation and turned to pose for a portrait of the ferocity for which his people were known when he was a young man.
In crossing the Pacific, Solar Impulse II flew reasonably close to Ecuador. Ironically, solar power has been the only source of electricity in the more remote Huaorani communities for many years. The sustainability of our species may one day become the ultimate true cost of oil.