BP and Me: How The Oil Spill Changed My Mind on Electric Cars

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Navarre Beach, Florida by SCFiasco on Flickr

Navarre Beach, Florida by SCFiasco on Flickr

As a writer for a group of car sites with 3 million readers each month, I don't think I need to explain how much gasoline has changed my life. I've seen the world from street level because of it. It's fueled me.

Oil has caused me agita this year, too. It's played havoc with a place I see myself someday, when I'm divorced from work. And it's made me wonder if electric cars--or how much electrification of cars--is in the practical future.

We like to call it "Florida's Best-Kept Secret," but it's been hard to keep Navarre Beach a secret in the past six years. For starters, there was Ivan, a category 3 hurricane that made landfall about 30 miles to the west of us. Word of warning: when The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore shows up on your beach, you're doomed.

Ivan was punishment enough, but that September day in 2004 was followed quickly by July of 2005 and Hurricane Dennis, a direct hit. And then in September, by the monster that was Katrina, which flattened Mississippi with atomic fury and caused 20-foot storm surge from 200 miles away, swiping away our fragile coastal road like an asphalt game of Jenga. If you've seen my old profile pics here on High Gear Media, lying on a chunk of road, you've seen the debris.

Fast-forward to 2010, five years since the threat of storm season bore anything seriously menacing. Off in the Gulf, an oil rig exploded--and suddenly, BP became our new Ivan, or Katrina.

Natural disasters, you face them with a sullen acceptance, while you walk miles where a road used to be to cut mold out of drywall. This was different, this was angry. And as it unfolded in April and May, then June, then July, the inability of industry and government to explain how it happened, or how it would never happen again, laid bare our fellow bushwackers' anxiety. The realization that the immediate problem was incompetence, but the long-term problem was with oil.

You've been witness to everything since. At a micro level, what BP did to our beach may not be as bad as predicted. Some disgusting patties of frothy oil showed up on the snow-white sand we're famed for, as did quarter-sized blobs of more pure crude. Fifty miles west, Orange Beach, Alabama, went vividly orange under waves of unprocessed oil. We got off lightly.

If you found BP CEO Tony Hayward's behavior galling, imagine watching while picturing your retirement dissolving in inky pollution. Or while wondering if the herons you fed on the dunes outside your deck would ever come back.

Navarre Beach, Florida by gregory-moine on Flickr

Navarre Beach, Florida by gregory-moine on Flickr

Since then, the mini-nightmare of paperwork hasn't helped smooth things over. After the storms, I became an insurance-filing machine; Lloyd's of London's insurers set the benchmark, paying $70,000 for a new slate-and-copper roof over our French Quarter apartment in a matter of weeks. 

With BP, it's been more of an unpleasant slog. After I filed an online claim on June 30, BP's hastily published Web site refused to issue a claim number, so I filed one over the phone. For the next three months that impatience would haunt me, as both claims received all kinds of communications--mostly paper, most saying my claim had been denied due to lack of substantiation.

Over the next two months, I backed up my claim, and when all was said and done, BP had 120 pages of personal information--tax returns, receipts and the like.I didn't much care for releasing that information to a company I never had done business with, one that had just royally screwed up my own Margaritaville. But losses were incurred and needed to be paid.

A few weeks ago, BP shifted all claims to a new fund administered by the government--the $20 billion fund President Obama wrangled out of the "beyond petroleum" energy company. A new online claim, a new number, reconnecting my paperwork, all took a few more days of phone tag.

The game ended this week--for now, I suppose--when we received a first round of compensation. It's everything we claimed. A little late, but it's here.

Irony number one: the check came made out to "BP." Our initials.

Irony number two: In the state of Florida, lawmakers tried to keep oil drilling far offshore by banning them as close as 24 miles off the coast of Navarre Beach, where federal decrees say it's permissible, some day. That buffer zone still failed to protect our beaches.

Oil is toxic, in ways you can't imagine until they blow up in your face.

Oil can also be an astonishing transformer. It lifts people out of poverty. It rewired our country on a circuit of Interstates. It enabled modern America.

Is it worth the recurring threat of another BP spill, to keep the world's cars running on oil alone? These days, I'm no longer convinced that one easy solution is the best one. Hurricanes can't be prevented, but some ecological disasters can.

I'm choosing an electric car as my next new vehicle, not to prove a point, but to see if it's a rational future. A better choice for some, maybe for most. Not for all.

Maybe it's worth a new moon shot, a new space-shuttle-style investment in our future.

And maybe one day, my beach will be its laid-back self, white sand and all.

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