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September 22, 2014 | 27th Elul 5774

Petroleum

Galilee Diary #366, December 4, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

 

…[W]hen the Greeks entered the Temple they desecrated all the oil in the Temple, and when the Hasmoneans reconquered the Temple, they looked and found only one jar of oil which was sealed with the seal of the high priest. And there was only enough oil to burn for one day, but a miracle occurred and it continued to burn for eight days.

-Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b

Recently we had to replace our aging family car, a Skoda diesel, which at ten years and 200,000 miles was still getting 40 miles to the gallon. I have never seen a Skoda in North America, though they have become quite popular in Europe and Israel in the past ten years. Skoda is a Czech company now owned by Volkswagen. We looked around, and ended up buying another one. Our new compact station wagon is currently averaging 48 miles to the gallon. Diesel fuel is available at every gas station in Israel, and diesel cars are very common here, as in Europe. When we bought our first one, the tax on diesel fuel was significantly less than on gasoline, so we not only saved fuel, but we saved even more money. Now the price per gallon is about the same (about $6.50), though one can generally find diesel at a discount. Note that there is a 40% purchase tax on new cars here, so there is no such thing as a cheap car, and the used car market is inflated accordingly.

If only Abraham had not listened to God, and had stayed in Iraq, we would be sitting on huge petroleum reserves instead of just about the only sliver of land in the Mideast with no oil underneath it. Israel imports oil from Egypt, Africa, Latin America, Norway, Russia and other former Soviet republics. Virtually all of this comes by tanker – since the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, the pipeline from there has been cut off. So you would think, given our dependency and given our reputation for being clever, that we would be a world leader in energy conservation. And yet, for reasons I have been trying for years to understand, this is a society that seems blithely unconscious of the most basic energy conservation habits. My pet peeve is the universal practice of turning on the air-conditioning and opening all the windows. Whenever I am in a place where this occurs, which is frequently, in just about every meeting or class, in the big city or the moshav, among Arabs or Jews, teenagers or professors, I attempt to close the windows, but am always rebuffed. I am told it is stuffy with the windows closed. And if I try to explain that this is sort of a waste of energy, I see the "tree-hugger" glances being exchanged around me.

Israel, despite its energy situation, is still infatuated with the private car; sales keep increasing - many leased by businesses that provide company cars (with unlimited fuel) as a common perk to employees. Highways are constantly being widened, but the construction can’t keep up with the congestion. When I have a meeting in Jerusalem, a 250 mile round trip, and tell people I'll be coming by train and bus, I get pitying looks, and "Really? How is that trip?" (Actually, if it’s not Sunday morning or Thursday afternoon, the trip is quite pleasant, thank you).

On the positive side, as more and more people install home air-conditioning, the use of inefficient radiant heaters in winter declines, in favor of heating by means of reversing the air- conditioner (which can pump heat in either direction). But this is actually not an ecological decision but an accidental benefit of the increasing use of air-conditioners – which leads, of course, to hugely increased electric consumption in the summer (especially with all those open windows).

I always find it surprising that in the United States, that land of unlimited resources and the pursuit of happiness, there seems to be a clear and growing public awareness of certain basic conservation measures (not that there is not a long way to go), whereas here, in the face of scarce resources, there is such resistance to those same simple measures. Maybe the message is that there’s more to it than economics: if a 40% purchase tax on cars, and fuel at $6.50 a gallon, and the time costs of congestion and the health costs of smog, don’t slow us down, what will?

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