Lessons forgotten from days of long gas lines

While we celebrate the prosperity that has accompanied economic growth, a serious threat to that prosperity is ignored. America's economic growth depends on the availability of significant quantities of imported oil at stable prices.

But precisely because of this dependence, the nation's economic and political well-being is at risk. If ever there was a time for an honest reassessment of US energy policy, it's now.

What is needed is a substantial increase in federal investment to promote energy efficiency, a fundamental transition in power generation from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and a new generation of advanced nuclear-power plants.

One of the recurring enigmas of recent history is how the United States can remain so dependent on imported oil. The Commerce Department reports that rising oil imports pushed the trade deficit to $168.6 billion last year, the highest in history. The surge in the trade gap, which exceeded the 1997 level by more than 50 percent, raises concerns that the US may be sleepwalking into a new energy crisis.

The magnitude of the problem is easily stated. Oil accounts for 40 percent of US energy use. Falling oil prices have cut domestic oil production by 2.8 million barrels per day since the Arab embargo in 1973, while stimulating greater use. In the same period, dependence on foreign oil doubled - from 4.2 million barrels a day to 8 million. The huge rise in oil imports is itself greater than the total oil consumption of any other country except Japan.

At this pace, within a few years, oil imports will supply 60 percent of US daily needs. Pundits who believe we should stop fretting about rising oil imports ignore the fact that while OPEC accounts for only 40 percent of world production, it possesses 75 percent of known reserves.

The growing dependence on imported oil in general and the Persian Gulf in particular has several potentially serious implications for the US economy and national security. To the extent that OPEC's recapture of the dominant share of the global oil market will make price increases more likely, the US economy is at risk. Since 1973, sharp increases in the price of oil have always been followed by economic recessions in the US.

What is the appropriate national response to the emerging energy-security threat?

Unfortunately, some solutions in the past have become problems themselves. Coal, for example, is a major contributor to air pollution and global warming. Natural gas, though cleaner than coal, also loads the atmosphere with greenhouse emissions. Improvements in energy efficiency help reduce the growth rate of electricity demand, but won't eliminate the need for more electric capacity.

In the long run, the US can hope to reduce its dependence on oil by developing renewable energy sources. But it takes decades before significant quantities of hydrogen fuel can be developed from solar sources. That's no reason to give up; it means diverse, determined efforts should begin.

The only way to be less susceptible to an energy crisis is to take immediate national steps based on solid science.

The trouble is that when it comes to building more power plants, nuclear or fossil fuel, electric utilities aren't interested. Although new capacity is needed to fill increasing demand for electricity, high costs and the new era of deregulation make power-plant construction a long and financially risky process.

That could change if the government would lay the foundation for a new generation of compact nuclear plants using standardized designs.

Mid-size reactors in the 600-megawatt range, these new plants rely primarily on passive safety systems, which would make future nuclear plants even safer than existing units. In the extremely remote possibility that anything goes wrong, the plants will shut down and self-cool.

Because the reactors are small, a utility could add to its generating capacity gradually, in step with demand.

An advanced light-water nuclear plant is already in commercial service in Japan.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved designs for the mid-size reactors. It also has adopted changes in the licensing system to give citizens greater input in the hearing process.

The only thing missing is the money to construct the first compact plant.

The obvious solution is for private industry and government to enter into a partnership.

Industry would be able to demonstrate that a safe, compact nuclear plant can be built on time and within budget. Most important, the government would be taking action to meet overall energy security and global warming goals.

But how we get past the next few years is a mystery.

Is any political leader ready to tell Americans that immediate national steps to use less foreign oil are the only paths to safety?

*Martin E. Nelson is a professor of marine engineering at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The opinions in this article are solely his own.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.