End foreign oil dependency

December 26, 1990|By Newsday

OUR NATIONAL strength is dangerously dependent on a thin line of oil tankers stretching halfway around the Earth, originating in the Middle East and around the Persian Gulf -- one of the most unstable regions in the world."

Everything, and nothing, has changed since April 1979. Then, President Carter asked the public to embark on an era of national sacrifice to break the U.S. economy of its debilitating addiction to foreign oil. At the time, imports represented about half of all the oil gulped down by American cars, factories, offices and homes.

Now, 400,000 U.S. troops are poised for war in the Middle East. That is the product of what passes, at the moment, for U.S. energy policy. And imports once again represent about half the oil Americans consume.

The United States needs a comprehensive, long-term plan to wean itself from foreign oil -- slowly, over the next two decades or longer. It will require sacrifice from consumers in the form of a collective abandonment of a comfortable but profligate lifestyle centered on the private automobile. In short, gas taxes will have to be raised.

The mix of fuels the United States consumes must be diversified, with natural gas and alternatives such as solar power given market advantages, or at least the same dependable support that government has long provided the domestic oil and nuclear industries. And environmentalists who reflexively balk at new oil drilling must take a more rational approach, so that if a huge U.S. oil reserve really does exist in a sensitive area, it must at least be explored to determine whether the find is worth the risk of unearthing it.

The crux of a proper national energy policy hasn't changed since Carter's April 1979 speech: "Each one of us will have to use less oil and pay more for it." Only when consumers are forced to pay more for oil do they conserve. And when oil carries a high price, other forms of fuel become real, competitive options.

A substantive energy policy requires contributions from all of society, and political leadership unafraid to ask for them.

Yet President Bush is fudging on developing what he calls a national energy strategy -- even as his preoccupation with events in the Persian Gulf should remind him every single day of the urgent need for one. He is being badly misguided by his chief of staff, John Sununu, and his budget director, Richard Darman, who insist on a "free market" plan that imposes few mandates on industry and asks virtually no sacrifice of consumers.

Its underlying philosophy is fundamentally incorrect. It is based on the myth that there can be a "free market" in energy. But there is no free market in oil; there is OPEC.

Before Bush chants the free-market mantra, he should ask himself: If posting 400,000 soldiers in the Persian Gulf isn't affecting the marketplace, what is?

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