Oil, gas, and urban sprawl

Aug. 9, 1999
The oil and gas business should pay attention to, become involved with, and certainly not resist efforts by governments and interest groups to deal with urban sprawl.

The oil and gas business should pay attention to, become involved with, and certainly not resist efforts by governments and interest groups to deal with urban sprawl.

The issue has received new life recently, helped by the Clinton administration`s early-year introduction of a "livability agenda." It will probably become a feature of Vice-President Al Gore`s political campaign for the presidency.

The phenomenon, however, isn`t new. It has been around at least since the end of World War II. Since then, the migration of people and their dwellings away from city centers has rolled steadily along ever-lengthening roadways on the tires of vehicles fueled by petroleum. Social resistance was inevitable.

Environmental politics
Indeed, concern about urban sprawl derives its political energy from environmentalism and related opposition to the combustion of fossil fuel. A consistent undertone in discussions about urban sprawl is that reversing the trend will, by reducing driving, help fight global warming.

This antipetroleum inclination alone gives the oil and gas industry good reason to pay attention. But it will do no good to treat it as a threat. The environmental and social effects of sprawl are in fact more evident and real than those of, say, global warming. Oil does play a role in those drawbacks. That`s an even better reason for companies that produce, refine, and sell oil to show concern.

Furthermore, constructive industry engagement in the issue would add useful perspective to the issue and to environmental discourse in general. Just as oil`s environmental detriments do not annul its contributions to human well-being, urban sprawl isn`t all bad, either. It tends, after all, to occur as a function of economic progress. Just as oil`s environmental detriments can be ameliorated through attention and technological advance, damage to natural values from urban sprawl also can be held in check.

Oil and gas companies joining the debate should first make their motives clear then work to improve popular characterizations of the issue.

Industry motives must not be to preserve markets for oil products or natural gas. Market size for these or any other fuels is not a proper focus of government policy. Companies need to approach the sprawl issue as a matter of public interest manifest partly in the behavior of energy consumers-who care chiefly about mobility, comfort, convenience, and cost.

From that perspective, companies must resist the too-frequent portrayal of urban sprawl as the paving over of nature at the behest of careless developers cheered on by marketers of petroleum. In fact, the market won`t allow that to happen. People won`t buy houses in seas of concrete. For that reason, developers and homebuilders spend lots of money on trees, grass, shrubbery, lakes, and parks.

Landscaping undertaken in response to the preferences of homebuyers may, of course, clash with the aesthetic sensitivities of government planners. But that raises another issue that oil and gas companies should not hesitate to address: freedom of choice.

Mass choice
Most people who move to the suburbs do not trudge grudgingly away from beloved downtown high-rises. Most of them move to houses with lawns in the suburbs because they want to. It is appropriate for government officials to concern themselves with the environmental, fiscal, and social effects of the trend. But they should acknowledge that urban sprawl largely demonstrates mass choice. In fact, as public servants in a representative government, they should accommodate the phenomenon even when they think they know better.

Oil and gas companies will serve the interests of their industry, their customers, and the public if they directly address not only the environmental problems of urban sprawl and their products` contributions to them but also the democratic values certain to be compromised if governments do the job by themselves.