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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

America Over a Barrel

David Harris
March 1, 2010

There are some things I just don't get.

One of them is America's chronic inability to address our energy dependence on countries hostile to our core values.

Though grave damage is being done to our national security and economy, as a nation, we just can't summon the will to solve a problem which does have a solution.

Thirty-seven years ago, a shot was fired across our bow. OPEC, the oil cartel, decided to mix politics and economics by declaring a boycott of the U.S.

Then came the quadrupling of oil prices, sending our economy into a tailspin.

Our political leaders all promised dramatic action to wean us from our addiction. Initially, some progress was made in raising fuel economy standards and improving overall energy efficiency. But, in the end, their promises fell short.

The price of oil stabilized as output kept pace with demand, and we were quickly lulled right back into collective national complacency. We felt that it was no one's business to tell us what to drive, how to drive, or what to do in our oil-heated homes. This was America, after all, not some nanny state.

So when President Jimmy Carter turned down the thermostat in the White House one winter, donned a sweater, and asked us to do the same, we scoffed at our leader. Didn't he know that, as Americans, we were entitled to be the world's biggest energy consumers? How dare he ask us to sacrifice?

Then Congress made matters worse. Even as fuel economy standards were being raised for cars, Capitol Hill exempted light trucks and vans from the rules. Lo and behold, as Americans bought more and more of these gas-guzzlers -- eventually more than half of all vehicles sold in any given year -- our oil needs only grew.

In more recent years, we again became aware of the danger of our oil dependence. The 9/11 attacks were a sobering reminder. We learned that Saudi Arabia, with the world's largest oil reserves, was spending tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue to support the extremist Wahhabi version of Islam around the world. Mosques and madrassas were purveying a message of intolerance and conflict, even as Saudi Arabia was taking out slick ads in the American media promoting our two countries' "shared values."

We watched as Venezuela, the fifth largest exporter of oil to the U.S. and owner of CITGO, used its petrodollars to undermine American interests in Latin America and to forge ties with Iran.

And more broadly, we witnessed energy security issues penetrate just about every nook and cranny in international relations.

America tried to bring the horrors of Darfur to an end, but China's interest in Sudan's oil made it difficult to get concerted international action -- and China isn't alone.

We've tried to forge consensus against Iran's nuclear program, but China's interest in Iran's oil complicates that, too -- and, again, China isn't alone.

Meanwhile, European countries, most of which are heavily dependent on imported oil, are forced to tiptoe politically around the likes of Libya, a nation with the eighth largest proven reserves in the world.

And do we Americans need reminders about the costly consequences for our own foreign policy of our reliance on Middle Eastern oil?

What can be done about this?

For starters:

First, focus on the prize -- a world where the value of oil has dropped dramatically. Imagine what that could mean for the distribution of global power.

And think about the impact on our economy if we could keep hundreds of billions of dollars per year right here rather than sending them overseas to Venezuela to buy weapons from Moscow or to Saudi Arabia to fund madrassas in Pakistan.

Second, it's time we demand -- yes, demand -- concerted action by all our elected officials. Words won't suffice. We've had too many of them. Excuses for inaction won't wash. The very future of our nation is at stake, and it's high time to put this issue at the top of our agenda and keep it there.

Third, let's drop the partisanship. This is about America, not about political parties. Both parties should have an identical interest in moving the country toward real energy security. However naive it may sound, what a sight it would be to see Democrats and Republicans standing shoulder-to-shoulder and pledging united action to deal with our energy dependence head-on until we reach the goal.

Fourth, think bold. Brazil did in the 1970s. It was even more dependent than we on imported oil. No longer. The country today is energy independent, through a combination of national planning, technological innovation, and exploration. And now China is on the way. Beijing has already announced that it seeks to be the global leader in post-oil technologies. Are we going to be content one day to replace our dependence on Middle Eastern oil with dependence on Chinese alternative energy technologies?

Fifth, look in the mirror. How many of us have been part of the problem -- by our buying and driving patterns, by our lifestyles, by a sense of entitlement, and by a belief that some are exempted from the rules that should govern others? With modest changes in our own behavior, we can have a dramatic impact.

And sixth, look to Europe. Not a single one of the most fuel-efficient cars in the U.S. would make the comparable list in Europe, where the base line for the top ten models is 64 miles per gallon. Are Europeans any less interested in safety, emissions controls, or comfort than we are?

Europe has also gone much further than the U.S. in developing public transportation. So, too, has Japan. Now China is leaping ahead. This is especially striking in the realm of high-speed trains. We waited decades for the Acela, but compared to what's available elsewhere, including the Maglev in Shanghai and the TGV in France, forgive me, it's practically ancient.

This is true in metropolitan areas as well. Outside a handful of American cities, public transportation options are few and far between, compelling residents to rely on private vehicles for everything from work to shopping. And even in New York, with its extensive network, a project like the Second Avenue Subway has been in the works, according to author Robert Caro, since "shortly after World War I," yet we're still not there.

Saddest of all is the knowledge that it's well within our grasp to break the stranglehold. We can dramatically reduce our dependence on imported oil from hostile countries, while boosting our national security and enhancing our domestic economy -- not to mention the benefits that measures reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will provide in terms of climate change and the environment. We have the scientific and entrepreneurial know-how to develop new technologies, and, save oil, abundant natural resources. There's no one silver bullet for our problem, but there are several promising possibilities. All should be pursued, consistent, of course, with strict environmental safeguards.

President Obama, speaking last year of "our journey toward energy independence," said that "America's dependence on oil is one of the most serious threats that our nation faces. It bankrolls dictators, pays for nuclear proliferation, and funds both sides of our struggle against terrorism."

By contrast, the former director of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, replied that "Like it or not, the fates of the United States and Saudi Arabia are connected and will remain so for decades to come" because of the oil link.

Which will it be? President Obama's vision or Prince Turki al-Faisal's?

The answer should be obvious. The ways to reach it are clear. The bottom-line question is whether there's the national will.
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