Hooked

May 11, 2004

SO, GASOLINE could be $3 a gallon by the end of the summer. Gak! It's almost enough to make you hope that President Bush really does have a secret deal with the Saudis to turn on the oil spigots right before the election, as Bob Woodward reports.

Actually, it's not clear how much or how quickly it would help if OPEC boosted the supply of crude oil, since the pump price is also driven by a shortage of refineries in this country. Even so, it would be only a short-term fix. Good for Mr. Bush's re-election prospects, perhaps, but just a little kick of the can down the road to postpone facing up to the reality of cheap fuel.

It's running out. And the sooner we get serious about making the transition to something other than the carbon combustion engine, the easier that transition is going to be.

Most politicians won't acknowledge that because it's not what voters want to hear.

The Bush administration gives lip service to alternative fuels, such as hydrogen - as well as a token investment in research - but is proposing to drill, mine or tap every U.S. source of fossil fuel first. Hardly an approach that encourages private investment in alternatives.

Sen. John Kerry, Mr. Bush's likely Democratic opponent, has focused on criticizing the president's cozy relationship with the Saudis and calling on the administration to stop buying crude oil for the nation's strategic reserve supply - a short-sighted solution if ever there was one.

"We are hooked," says New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici, "and we cannot even do the most incremental steps to begin to address this plight."

Sticker shock at the pumps might finally break through what Senator Domenici calls the "psychological barrier" to action.

He, like Mr. Bush, favors more domestic drilling. There is also talk in Congress of reducing regulations to encourage the building of additional refineries. But a far wiser approach would be to reduce the thundering demand for oil, which is 5 percent higher in the United States this year than last, and growing in China.

The most encouraging development in that direction is the trend toward hybrid vehicles, which use electric power to supplement and reduce gasoline use. To his credit, Mr. Kerry is encouraging U.S. automakers to go more aggressively after that market, which promises a double reward to the U.S. economy in the form of jobs as well as more stable fuel prices.

But hybrids, too, are only an interim solution. Neither they, nor hydrogen cars in their initial incarnation, nor plant-based fuels such as ethanol (a big passion for lawmakers from corn states) can function without some reliance on fossil fuels.

A much higher priority must be placed on developing the technology to meet transportation and other energy needs with a whole lot less oil. Because someday, "scarce" may become "none at all."

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