Forty years ago this week, America received a harsh lesson about the dangers of relying on others for energy. President Nixon's decision in the midst of the Yom Kippur War to resupply Israel with U.S. weaponry gave members of the OPEC cartel an excuse to embargo oil supplies to this country and drive up prices worldwide. It became known as the "oil shock" of 1973.
Ever since, politicians of both parties have promised to reduce our dependency on unreliable foreign sources. To that end, over the past four decades, they have invested untold sums on various schemes — imposing price controls, producing synthetic fuels and subsidizing ethanol production, curbing demand and diversifying overseas sources of supply for oil and natural gas.
Thanks largely to private-sector initiatives and funds, however, real progress has lately been made on this long-standing national objective. Finally, the widespread application of technology such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (better known as fracking) and a series of discoveries of vast quantities of natural gas around the United States and off its coasts have transformed our situation from one of energy dependency to potentially that of the largest energy exporter in the world.
The geopolitical and economic significance of this transformation will be the focus of conferences sponsored by two influential, bipartisan groups in Washington this week. Former Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers, senior military personnel and other experts will convene on Tuesday under the auspices of the U.S. Energy Security Council and on Wednesday under that of Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE) to discuss the oil embargo, the intervening years and where we are today vis-a-vis those who used energy as an economic weapon against us in the past.
It is very much to be hoped that these conversations will not simply repeat nostrums about the inadvisability of being dependent upon unreliable — to say nothing of actually hostile — energy sources. Or, worse yet, simply revel in the change of fortunes that will, in the absence of further Obama administration obstructionism, enable us to become again a huge net producer of energy. (Regrettably, with its pursuit of cap-and-trade restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions, overreaching EPA regulations, the campaign to destroy the coal industry and further shenanigans with respect to the Keystone XL pipeline, there is ample reason to expect more official impediments to our energy security, not fewer.)
What is needed now is a strategic approach to using our newfound energy leverage to cause some oil "shocks" of our own.
For starters, the windfall of natural-gas deposits being found in this country opens up an opportunity to transform the sector in which we are still almost entirely dependent on oil and its byproducts: the transportation of people and goods via automobiles, buses and trucks. If natural gas can become widely used in eighteen-wheelers and turned into methanol for use in most modern cars, we could dramatically reduce the amount of gasoline we are obliged to import from the Islamists of OPEC.
What is more, as Nobel laureate George Olah observed in an op-ed essay he co-authored in The Wall Street Journal last week, recent breakthroughs in chemistry are allowing another vast U.S. resource — carbon dioxide — to be cost-effectively converted into methanol. Far better to burn it in our automobiles and in modified surface transportation and maritime diesel engines than to pay exorbitant sums, as Team Obama has in mind, to try to store it underground.
Best of all, by enabling these alternatives to oil and gasoline to become available across America, we can create fuel choice for consumers — and competition for the cartelists. The predictable effect would be to drive oil prices down, especially as the scores of other developing nations capable of manufacturing their own alternatives to gasoline begin to do so, as Brazil has already done with ethanol.
The result could be to break the back of OPEC, once and for all. That, in turn, would help dry up the funding that has done so much for decades to power jihadism and undermine our economy.
This is no longer simply a desirable thing to do. It is absolutely imperative. As Center for Security Policy senior fellow Kevin Freeman has observed, Mideast oil producers seem determined to join the Chinese and Russians, among others, in terminating the U.S. dollar's status as the world's international reserve currency. Should they succeed in this gambit, the profound and debilitating economic and strategic ramifications will make the oil shock of 40 years ago look like the good old days.
Adopting bipartisan Open Fuel Standards legislation and taking such other steps as are necessary to enable fuel choice can help us withstand disruptions in oil supply and/or skyrocketing price increases in the event of a new regional war in the Middle East. We can and must be in a position to deliver the next oil shock, not be its recipient.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. was an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. He is president of the Center for Security Policy (www.SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for The Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program Secure Freedom Radio.