The automobile has always featured significantly in my family.
My father as a young man brought the first automobile to his little Welsh hometown. He had to trade the family horse for it at the nearest big city. On the way back, the car broke down, my dad had to hike back to the big city, and borrow back the horse to tow the car home.
Cars were my father's business for the rest of his life, and by the time I got my own first car they obviously had improved greatly. By the time my grown-up children were of driving age, cars had become sleek and powerful monsters, with one, and often two, in every garage.
Now my 14-year-old is looking forward to his appointment with the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine on wheels, and I'm wondering how much the era of the automobile is going to change in his lifetime or whether it will exist in its present form at all.
The problem is oil, and the shortage thereof. When refined, it provides Americans with their gasoline, and they use a lot of it. The United States gobbles up 25 percent of the world's oil production but has only about three percent of the world's reserves itself. The rest must be imported.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita temporarily knocked out much of the US refining capacity in its Gulf states, further complicating the gasoline supply situation and focusing attention on the vulnerability of US refining capability. But even before this, the price of gasoline in the US was bobbing around $3 a gallon, triple what it was five years ago. That is still cheap by European standards, where gas is $6 a gallon in some countries. But Americans are profligate in their gasoline consumption, fueling large SUVs with it, and particularly in some Western states driving vast mileages. So $3-a-gallon gasoline hits them hard.
Congress is seized with the problem but is focused only on the prospect of increasing oil production in North America. It has been debating new oil drilling in the Arctic and been pushing relaxation of rules for increased domestic refining which are opposed by environmental lobbies. It is also pinning some hope on increased production from Canada with the extraction there of oil from sand. This is complicated and hitherto has been prohibitive to do. The mounting price of oil makes it economically more attractive. None of all this, however, offers any prospect of making the US independent in the energy field. If US consumption continues apace, the US must continue to be reliant on massive imports of oil.
It is thus in competition with countries like India, and particularly China, whose economies are booming spectacularly, and whose demand for oil has become voracious. China has been cutting deals to buy oil from a string of countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, as well as Russia and Norway. It has been particularly attentive to Iran, which now supplies more than 10 percent of China's imported oil.
While American consumers may not be aware of the long-term supply problems ahead, rising gas prices have caused them to explore the possibility of more fuel-efficient cars. They are buying fewer of the big SUVs that give less than 20 miles of travel to the gallon and dabbling more in hybrid cars that couple an electric motor with a gasoline engine to afford better mileage.
Toyota says it has sold more than 150,000 of its new Prius hybrids in the US market and is offering hybrid versions of its Highlander and Lexus RX, both smaller SUVs. American manufacturers like Ford, which says it might increase production of its hybrids by tenfold in the next four years, are rushing to capture a slice of the hybrid market. But hybrids still represent only a small fraction of the US auto market.
President Bush has called for conservation on the energy front, setting an example at the White House by turning off lights, lowering thermostats, and calling on staff to carpool. Scientists are looking at alternative fuels like ethanol, which Brazil has pioneered from sugar. As Chevron says in a series of institutional advertisements: "Energy will be one of the defining issues of this century."
If the US is even to approach anything like energy independence, it will require extraordinary effort in conservation and the development of alternative fuels, as well as pumping more oil.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.