Mark Twain is usually credited with the quip, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The same is certainly true of our dependence on foreign, and often unfriendly, sources of energy - particularly when gas prices soar and every American feels the pinch.
The difference, of course, is that we actually could do something about energy freedom - a status that might not render us totally independent of all foreign sources of oil, but that would leave us vastly less dependent than we are today and, therefore, far more secure.
But will we? Or more precisely, will we before it becomes absolutely necessary to do so?
Obviously, we will take whatever steps are necessary once imported oil ceases, for whatever reason, to be available in the quantities or at prices to which we are accustomed. At that point, we will have no choice but to wean ourselves from a costly and strategically reckless dependency on such fuel.
But achieving such energy freedom at that point will be much more difficult and entail much more hardship than if we do it before such a dreaded - but absolutely predictable - calamity befalls us. Whether as a result of actions taken by terrorists or their state sponsors, by an Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries oil cartel likely to come increasingly under the sway of rabidly anti-American Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies in Iran, or by Mother Nature, the only responsible working assumption has to be the following: At some point, there will be serious shortfalls in supplies of foreign energy and far higher prices associated with obtaining whatever continues to be available.
President Obama has only made this problem worse with his administration’s decisions to limit exploration and exploitation of offshore and Arctic oil deposits; block a pipeline that would tap oil from Canadian shale - a foreign source, to be sure, but a far more reliable one than those of Saudi Arabia and other OPEC suppliers; and release 30 million barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which had no enduring effect on either the price of oil or its availability but reduced our cushion against the aforementioned day of reckoning.
The good news is that we can dramatically increase our energy self-sufficiency in the transportation sector, where 70 percent of our oil is currently consumed, some two-thirds of which is imported. All it will take is to equip our vehicles to use fuels we have or can readily make in abundance.
Such fuels include natural gas, methanol, which can be produced from anything with carbon in it, including natural gas and coal, and ethanol, which can be generated from sources other than corn, particularly as cellulosic technologies come onstream. Already, thanks to the price differentials between these American-available fuels on the one hand, and gasoline and diesel obtained from oil on the other, there is a growing interest on the part of consumers and businesses in having what has been called “fuel choice” - the ability to use alternatives to oil-based transportation fuels, as well as those derived from petroleum.
Some believe market forces alone will give the American public such energy freedom. When oil prices are high, that confidence seems warranted. Unfortunately, history suggests that whenever the nation contemplates serious actions to reduce its addiction to petroleum, OPEC steps in to manipulate the market and keep us hooked.
Even if that were not the case, waiting for the private sector to act in a comprehensive and sustained fashion sufficient to reduce our vulnerabilities to disruptions in our energy supplies from overseas is a formula for being overtaken by such disruptions. Simply put, we cannot afford to wait for the market to provide energy freedom.
The federal government can and should play a catalytic role in affording the public fuel choice. It need not tell them what kind of fuel to use, just help ensure that they and the U.S. transportation sector can use something other than oil-based products.
For example, a federal requirement that new cars sold in America be capable of using methanol and ethanol, as well as gasoline, would create markets for such alcohol-based fuels and competition that will drive down gas prices. Some recoil at the idea of such a government “mandate” as is contained in the bipartisan Open Fuel Standard Act (H.R. 1687). But such a capability is very inexpensive to include in new cars and, as President Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, “Neglecting to require auto companies to open their vehicles to fuel competition is to mandate a continued monopoly by oil.”
Another sensible step would be for the government to encourage the manufacture of big trucks powered by natural gas. My friend Boone Pickens has proposed tax credits that would incentivize industry to produce 140,000 such trucks. While some libertarians rail against the bill Mr. Pickens supports, the NAT GAS Act (H.R. 1380) for including what they characterize as “subsidies,” no less a small-government man than Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, endorses it. He draws a sensible distinction between subsidies that amount to “government taking money from people and giving it to a favored interest” and incentives that allow “industries, businesses and individuals … to keep more of the money they have earned.”
It’s time to stop talking and start securing energy freedom.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. 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,” heard in Washington weeknights at 9 p.m. on WRC-AM 1260.
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