There's No `Free Lunch' in Energy


IN five American cities, public hearings are being held on a new national energy strategy for the United States. As our country considers its choices, the Middle East is again in the headlines. The murder of Col. William Higgins by Shiite terrorists, as well as the past experiences of two oil shocks in the 1970s, reflect the risks and the stakes involved.

Beneficial changes have occurred since the first oil shock, including a rise in non-OPEC oil production, improved energy efficiency, improved miles per gallon standards for new cars, creation of a Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and decontrol of oil and gas prices. Nonetheless, there is a real danger of complacency.

Consider the following threats to our energy security:

American oil production has fallen to its lowest level in a quarter-century. Imports exceeded crude oil production for the first half of this year. This level of import dependence is actually greater than during either of the 1970s oil shocks.

Proven US oil reserves have fallen to only 3.7 percent of the world total; more than two-thirds of world reserves lie in the Persian Gulf, one of the most unstable regions on earth.

Oil production in regions such as the Alaskan North Slope and the British North Sea is forecast to decline within the next few years.

The murder of Higgins is a grim reminder of how violent and volatile the Middle East and Persian Gulf can be. Moreover, the use of missiles and poison gas by Iraq and Iran, and the alarming proliferation of these weapons throughout the region, means that a devastating conflict is always possible.

Recent trade figures show oil imports accounting for as much as one-third of the US's foreign trade deficit.

Rollbacks in calculating automobile fuel efficiency signal a threat to continued improvement and an indifference to the costs of gas guzzling.

Electricity supplies, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, are likely to fall below the reserve margin required for reliable operation. Though electricity demand has climbed at better than a 1-to-1 ratio with economic growth since 1973, the utilities have been unable to make provision for large baseload capacity increases. Despite concern over the greenhouse effect from fossil fuels, nuclear power has faced continued obstacles. At present growth rates, some regions may face supply problems and utilities may be forced to rely on quick fixes based on imported power, natural gas, and more oil. Yet using as much as 1.5 million additional barrels of oil a day (most of it imported) to generate electricity in the mid-1990s will worsen the risks to our economy and national security.

In coping with these problems, the US needs a diverse mix of energy measures including:

Priority for reversing the rise in imported oil.

Increases in the existing automobile mileage standards and the federal gasoline tax.

Filling the strategic petroleum reserve to a targeted 1 billion barrel capacity.

Enhanced research on long-term energy technologies, including energy efficiency and solar energy.

Measures to increase reliable electricity supplies from nonoil sources, especially clean-burning coal technologies, and appropriate development of nuclear power (which now accounts for 20 percent of US electricity). The successful experience of France bears study, and recent opinion polls indicate that 77 percent of the US public believes nuclear power will be important in meeting future American energy needs. Standardization of plant design, and legislation to provide for simultaneous approval of construction and operating permits are essential. These measures should benefit both public safety and the economic operation of nuclear power.

Our country cannot eliminate its dependence on imported oil. We can, however, reduce our vulnerability and enhance our energy security. The measures suggested are not without cost - there is no ``free lunch'' in energy - but the impact of another energy shock would impose far greater costs on all of us.

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