Will we ever stop guzzling?

November 22, 2001|By Robert Reno

THE POSSIBILITY of a global price war that could drive energy costs below their already depressed levels is one of the few pieces of good news in the unrelenting flow of depressing statistics that are confirming the unraveling of the American economy and the world's with it.

Or is it?

The precipitous slide in oil prices since Sept. 11 is part of a tedious cycle in which Americans whine about the high cost of energy until it becomes cheap again, at which point they resume consumption patterns that guarantee a return to scarcity.

Plentiful energy caused us to covet graven objects such as SUVs with six- and eight-cylinder engines as if they were shrines of achievement to be worshipped instead of a clever way automobile manufacturers found of getting around federally enforced mileage standards.

I wonder, though, if we don't overdo the symbolic demonization of SUVs in much the same way we overdo our scorn of Lizzie Grubman, who drove her way to infamy by leaving a pile of prone bodies and broken limbs in her famous ride across the parking lot of an insufferably trendy nightclub in her overpowered Mercedes. It is, after all, Congress, not the unfortunate Lizzie, that has failed to close the loopholes that continue to permit manufacture of vehicles that guzzle gasoline.

It was only a few months ago that Americans were worried about a heating oil shortage this winter. I'll confess I was one alarmed enough to go out and buy a winter's supply at a locked-in price. I felt smug and responsible. Now I feel stupid.

And who even remembers the California energy crisis? It evaporated after dominating last summer's headlines along with now forgotten details of Gary Condit's private life. And it wasn't so many months ago that consumers worried gasoline prices might exceed $2 a gallon, another fear that has gone up in fumes.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which is basically the tail of an 11-member dog wagged by Saudi Arabia, has just voted to curtail its production by 1.5 million barrels a day, but only if major non-OPEC producers, notably Mexico, Norway and Russia, make production cuts of their own.

Clearly, OPEC is terrified of losing market share to these nonmembers. Good old Mexico, our intimate neighbor to the south, has so far refused. Good old Norway, a NATO ally of 52 years' standing, is similarly reluctant. And who'd have thought we'd be saying good old Russia so soon after we had most of our missiles aimed and ready to rain down on its cities.

There is a general feeling that, on balance, lower oil prices, even if they collapse to $10 a barrel, are a good thing in the short term because they are about all that is stimulating the U.S. and world economies at a time when recessionary forces are pushing in the other direction. But don't expect OPEC members to see it this way.

"We are not asking too much from other countries," said OPEC President Chakib Khelil. "Why should OPEC alone continue to decrease supplies in a way that only benefits non-OPEC?"

Someone must tell Mr. Khelil he's being a bad sport.

For the better part of 30 years, we've been the yo-yo at the end of a string held by OPEC, which sits on top of about 40 percent of the world's oil production and 77 percent of its proven reserves. We've been yanked around even while having to pretend that Saudi Arabia is a cherished ally whose politics and human rights record we admire. We fought a war to preserve that kingdom. George Bush, the president's father, even characterized it as a war for "our way of life," as if our way of life included the quaint Saudi custom of not letting women drive cars.

That was a war to preserve our oil supplies and keep gasoline cheap, nothing more or less noble. What is not noble is that once it was won, we quickly went back to guzzling gas and to building the world's largest fleet of SUVs. Like Bourbon kings, we forgot nothing and learned nothing.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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