For oil addicts, switch-grass gas and more

Perhaps he winced at Iran's threat to cut oil exports. Or at a similar Venezuela threat. Or at turmoil in oil exporters Nigeria and Iraq. Or simply at China grabbing every oil patch it can get. But now President Bush has firmly linked US security to its oil addiction.

He made that critical linkage in Tuesday's State of the Union speech, a startling turnaround for a former Texas oil man who, up to now, preferred throwing tax breaks at oil firms to find more crude.

To be sure, oodles of oil still ooze from the planet, a giant mass of it in Alberta's gooey tar sands and Colorado's shale. But the president may have realized two points: Oil prices are likely to remain permanently high, and America's defense requires it to break its oil addiction, no matter where the world's remaining oil comes from.

With three years left in his term, Mr. Bush needs to show he's serious about his "Nixon-to-China" trip into a nonoil energy future. Because he's framed oil addiction in security terms, he'd best put the same money and jaw-boning behind the solutions that he deploys in the war on terror.

As the world's largest oil user, the US must reduce oil consumption so that an Iran cannot easily wield an oil card to get a nuclear weapon. Or so a Saudi Arabia cannot allow oil profits to filter to terrorists. Or so a Venezuela can't throw oil money at anti-US regimes. Or so a Russia cannot cut off petroleum exports in a strategic dispute. Or, for that matter, so a hurricane like Katrina can't create an oil price spike.

Nor should the US continue to spend billions to deploy its military in the Middle East to secure that dwindling oil patch - one reason perhaps why Bush set a goal for the US to cut 75 percent of its oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.

Every president since Nixon has promised a new energy future. The most dramatic success since then has been in conservation, with the US being about twice as efficient in oil use. More can be done, as Bush promised, in putting more money into battery research for use in plug-in and hybrid cars. But the test of his leadership will be in selecting the right projects with the right amount of money to boost nonoil energy sources - and enable them to be sustained.

To ensure that, he must work with Democrats to lay down a bipartisan energy future that will survive Washington's political flux. Last year, the GOP largely rammed through its energy measures, many of which were larded up with pork-barrel projects and lobbyists' wishes, and largely directed at finding more oil.

But to replace oil in the US energy mix, government needs to make sure the price of oil products remains high enough, or taxed enough, to help pay for oil alternatives. The switch to other sources will be expensive, and today's oil users must pay for it. They could, for instance, pay higher prices for more fuel-efficient vehicles, such as those running on hydrogen or electricity, or pay higher gas taxes on gasoline to fund nonoil subsidies.

The economics of relying on fuel made from corn, sugar cane, or (as Bush noted) the tall prairie plant called switch grass, still haven't been proven. But the US needs to expand the breadth of its energy experiments - and do it with all the zeal of a converted former oil man.

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