Big Oil's Stranglehold on America

By Regina L. Diamond
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

Big oil’s ruthless supply and demand tactics have monopolized the entire energy industry by shredding competitors’ attempts to offer alternatives. Consumers are thus forced to surrender their right to choose due to the aggressive techniques being used by the oil industry to prevent the use of clean energy. Unfortunately, the American government has historically sided with the oil tycoons. In the movie Who Killed the Electric Car the executive director for Energy and Climate Solutions, Joseph J. Romm accurately declares, “There’s no question that the people who control the marketplace today, the oil companies, have a strong incentive to discourage alternatives except the alternatives that they themselves control.” This seems rather unfair considering the alarming amount of evidence that shows the ill effects the use and production of fossil fuels cause to the environment. The ideal solution would be to replace oil with one of the safer alternatives that have been introduced into the markets over the past forty years; however, the American economy, being driven by capitalism and big oil interests, has protected the status quo and prevented change from occurring. There is a significant need to revise the profit motive as it pertains to energy and the environment. Presently, the oil industry controls the environmental future of America, which does not bode well for the future.

Over the past forty years there have been several notable attempts to revolutionize technology, all of which have been stomped into the ground by the oil industry. The first occurred in 1985 when Ronald Reagan tore down the solar panels from the roof of the White House. The incident and the events surrounding it were documented in Joshua Green’s essay, “Better Luck This Time.” In “The Specter Haunting Alaska” Peter Canby tells of another win for the oil industry. Canby gives details on Donald Hodel’s decision to drill in Alaska despite explicit warnings from environmentalists of disastrous results for the environment. Most recently, the California Air and Resource Board made an attempt to soften the blow that the oil industry is taking on the atmosphere. They passed the Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate in1990, which stated that each year car manufacturers were required to produce a small percentage of vehicles that did not produce harmful emissions. This effort by the auto industry to infiltrate the use of electric vehicles was stopped by the oil industry but not without the help of the United States government. This disturbing occurrence was documented in the movie Who Killed the Electric Car. It is absolutely necessary for a major revision to take place in order for the environment to have any chance at survival. These attempts were made by influential people, over the past four decades, yet still remain unsuccessful, suggesting that there is little hope for the environment.

The majority of the general public would agree that a change needs to take place, and some would even be willing to participate in this revolutionary movement. However, what most people fail to realize is that the fundamental problem with the capitalist economy lies in the hands of the consumers. They create the demand and the oil industry supplies the product. Jad Mouawad and Matthew Wald are quoted by Canby as saying, “The fundamental problem…is that Americans depend almost exclusively on relatively large and heavy private vehicles” (Canby, 133). Americans are rapidly depleting the remaining U.S. oil supply. They are consuming more oil at a faster pace, and the government supports this trend by encouraging consumers to buy huge gas guzzling vehicles. In Who Killed the Electric Car statistics showed that in 2003 a maximum federal tax credit of $100,000 was being offered for anyone driving a vehicle over six thousand pounds. However, in 2002 a mere $4,000 federal tax credit was being offered for anyone who drove an electric vehicle. Consumers are being rewarded by the government for draining what little oil is left. This is proof of the government’s preferential treatment to the use oil over all other means of energy.

The government is not making any attempts to stop the monopoly that the oil industry created; in fact they are doing the opposite. This leaves the consumer with no other choice but to continue buying oil. Theoretically, the consumer creates a demand, the oil industry maintains the supply, and the government provides the necessary regulation. In reality, the government is under tremendous pressure from the oil industry, leaving them with the reigns. As Peter Canby points out, “Environmentalists argue that declining oil production shows that both conservation and new sources of energy are now more needed than ever…the administration has been mentioning both of these, but it still sees the decline as a reason to increase, at all costs, the supply of oil” (Canby, 133). There is a constant demand for oil because there are no viable alternatives being offered. In order to avoid reliance upon foreign oil, the United States government would rather begin drilling in places that were once environmentally protected. With profit as the driving force, the oil industry is not going to stop drilling until all the wells run dry. Obviously the administration is apathetic about the environment and simply cannot see past the dollar signs. In 1977, the debate began over the use of fossil fuels versus harmless sources of renewable energy, such as wind and sun. There were countless amounts of evidence against fossil fuels, making it obvious that a switch to wind and sun as a means of clean energy would be pragmatic. However, Joshua Green points out that the United States government had a decision to make, and the “U.S. policy (at the time) promised a future of steadily increasing reliance on dirty fossil fuels and nuclear fission, and it carried serious environmental risks” (Green, 78). Essentially, those in charge chose to ruin the environment by continuing to drill oil despite their awareness of safer methods of producing energy. This situation actually occurred in 1977; nevertheless it is still happening today. With the United States government behind it, the oil industry will continue to defeat each and every opponent that steps in its way. Big Oil is a powerful puppet master that controls the automobile industry, American consumers and even the United States government on its strings. If these seemingly powerful CEOs and government officials are under the reign of Big Oil then it is impossible for the average American consumer to go up against this dominant force. Questions may arise about how one industry could manage to severely influence the United States government. Yet, it is plain to see that Big Oil is laying down the laws for everyone, and they do not seem reasonable.

The oil industry does not have much competition, and it uses the government and federal agencies to keep it that way. When consumers were given an alternative, specifically with the introduction of the electric car, many enthusiastically welcomed the change. Sadly, a huge portion of the public never even knew that the electric car hit the market due to poor marketing. As Chelsea Sexton, an EV-1 expert said in Who Killed the Electric Car the consumers just wanted to know “How far, how fast, how much”. These were simple questions that could have easily been answered in the advertisements for the electric car. Here again, the oil industry placed tremendous pressure on automakers encouraging them to discontinue the production of electric vehicles. Ironically, the vehicle manufacturers refused to properly market the very car they created. Despite the enthusiastic response to the EV-1, which was the electric car produced by General Motors, customers were only allowed to lease without an option to buy. At the end of their leases, consumers were stripped of their vehicles and possession was given back to General Motors. In Who Killed the Electric Car Peter Horton, an EV-1 driver states, “I’ve never seen a company so cannibalistic about its own product before. It’s such an odd experience”. The high-quality vehicle was selling despite not being properly marketed. The explanation is that it sold itself. The manufacturer suspiciously eliminated it anyway leaving many unhappy consumers and frustrated environmentalists. Electric cars were seen as a step in the right direction. This is the same direction that Jimmy Carter was taking when he optimistically put solar panels on the roof of the White House. In addition, as Green points out, “(Carter) compelled public utilities to accept power from independent companies such as those that might draw on wind or solar, and he made available, for the first time, subsidies for renewable energy in the form of an investment tax credit” (Green, 82). Unfortunately, a giant step backward was taken only after a few years. Green goes on to say, that Ronald Reagan tore down the solar panels and “killed the investment tax credit”, thus annihilating all of Carter’s efforts (Green, 82). These unsuccessful attempts at preserving the environment by the auto industry and the government are evidence that Big Oil is in charge and the future of the environment is doomed.

When discussing the responsibility of the United States government in regards to the future of the environment, it should actually be discussed as two separate entities: Republican and Democrat. Each political party has played an important role in significantly changing the way America deals with environmental issues. Unfortunately, all actions taken have not been beneficial in the long run. It seems that the Democrats are concerned with preserving the environment by exploring alternate methods of energy. On the other hand, the Republicans are interested in protecting the status quo and continuing to invest time, money and effort into the oil industry regardless of the substantial proof of its adverse effects on the environment. Democratic President Jimmy Carter began to revolutionize the way Americans use energy by placing solar panels on the White House. His efforts were shredded when Republican Ronald Reagan stepped into office. In the movie Who Killed the Electric Car Ronald Reagan is quoted as saying, “I have put a freeze on pending regulations and set up a task force under Vice President Bush to review regulations … towards getting rid of as many as possible…I have decontrolled oil…” The majority of the Republicans are fighting to keep oil as the chief supplier of energy regardless of how detrimental this might be to the future of the environment. It seems as though the Democrats are not as fearful of change as the Republicans appear to be. Most Democratic leaders look as if they are ready to welcome an overall transformation of energy usage in an attempt to save the environment. In “Better Luck This Time”, Green states that, “As before, a new Democratic president is touting clean energy, not only as the path to the future but as the key to economic revival” (Green, 79). He goes on to quote President Obama, who said, “We need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy” (Green, 79). Democratic President Obama, much like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, is making an attempt at an energy transformation. Unfortunately, this renewed sense of optimism will probably be short-lived given the constant shift in political power.

The future of the environment is up for grabs. Consumers, the auto industry, oil industry, environmental protection agencies and the United States government have all had ample opportunities to reverse the damage that has already been caused. Today, consumers continue to feed their “addiction to oil” by purchasing trucks and SUV’s, or Sports Utility Vehicles, such as Hummers. These six thousand pound vehicles gulp gallons of gasoline, keeping the oil industry in business. Nevertheless, the consumers are not the only ones to blame. In Who Killed the Electric Car Ralph Nader, a consumer advocate and grassroots politician, says that he is “familiar with the tactics used by the auto industry to reduce change” and that “there are all kinds of ways that they can bring politicians to their knees.” He went on to say that the automakers often times convince the government that there will be terrible consequences for change. The auto industry is very vested in the oil industry. Therefore, switching to alternate means of energy may initially cost them money. For this reason it is important for government agencies to form and enforce regulations that will force the automakers to begin making preliminary steps towards using alternative means of energy. Environmental agencies, such as the California Air Resources and the Fish and Wildlife Service (in Alaska) are supposedly responsible for protecting the environment. Yet, it is nearly impossible for these organizations to fulfill their duties when they are going toe-to-toe with outfits such as the entire auto industry combined with the Federal Government. The oil industry is a key component in this capitalist economy. Despite all the harmful effects it has caused to the environment, everyone is still not in agreement to invest in other means of energy. Many proposals have been made in a form of a solution to the energy crisis. In “The Specter Haunting Alaska” Canby points out that, “such sensible solutions are not what the Bush administration and the oil companies have in mind” (Canby, 134). Unfortunately, even when an influential leader such as President Jimmy Carter tries to make a change, a more powerful force steps in to prevent it from materializing. With Big Oil running the show the future of the environment looks dark and gloomy.


Canby, Peter. “The Specter Haunting Alaska.” The New York Review of Books. 52.18 17 Nov. 2005.

Green, Joshua. “Better Luck This Time.” The Atlantic. July/Aug. 2009.

Who Killed the Electric Car. Dir. Chris Paine. DVD. Sony Pictures Classics. 2006

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