Driving 55 m.p.h. is looking pretty good

The hurricane disruption of Gulf Coast oil and gas supplies should force Americans to rethink their concept of energy security, from new sources to new lifestyles. With war, terrorism, geopolitics, and - especially now - weather having impeded oil flows ever since the 1970s, the old way can no longer be the only way.

A three-part Monitor series this week ("Before the oil runs out") explored the options for new energy futures, showing ways to restructure the energy industry in anticipation of the day normal crude oil runs out.

But even with those traditional reserves expected to last a few more decades, it's clear that regular delivery of oil at affordable prices cannot be assured.

OPEC itself is pumping nearly as much petroleum as it can right now, but with all the factors influencing energy these days, the oil cartel's open spigot still isn't enough.

When Congress passed a comprehensive energy law this summer, the main assumption in its many measures was that government should provide more incentives simply to find more oil and gas. Both conservation and alternative energy sources, including renewables, were given some incentives. For the US to bank so much on discovering "more oil" and only increasing petroleum dependency - with hurricanes now possibly hitting America's main oil production and refinery capacity more frequently - looks like a dubious strategy.

Natural gas supplies are expected to be tight this winter, and oil fuel prices may rise to record heights. President Bush has taken some steps to ease the plight: He's released crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, waived maritime rules allowing foreign-owned ships to deliver oil to refineries, and temporarily lifted clean-air rules for gasoline.

But Mr. Bush has shown weak leadership on a more lasting step: Using the White House pulpit to urge Americans to turn down their thermostats this winter, save gasoline by buying high-gas-mileage vehicles and, most of all, to drive smarter.

One energy analyst, John Dowd of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co, told a Senate panel this month that "if, as a country, we were to obey speed limits for the next two months, we would probably conserve more fuel than will be lost by the refinery outages. Reducing speeds from 70 m.p.h. to 60 m.p.h., for example, improves fuel efficiency by 15 percent. If Americans want to know what they can do to limit gasoline price inflation, the answer is simple: slow down."

Consuming oil is so integrated into daily lives that it can be difficult to alter individual habits for a collective benefit. Since the 1970s, the nation has achieved much in energy conservation. But wisely taking such steps as avoiding many car trips, using air conditioning less frequently, and not accelerating a car so quickly are actions that still need to become habits.

As a former oil man, Bush must be more forceful on energy conservation, both to ease the current price crisis and to place energy efficiency at the forefront of energy policy. The era of staking the nation's future on a massive dependency upon one energy source needs to end - long before the oil runs out.

These latest disruptions in oil and natural-gas supplies should serve as a wake-up call that energy policy can't be business as usual.

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