When a Texas oilman like George W. Bush says our oil addiction is a problem and we've got to do something about it, it's time to do so.
Unfortunately, although the president's focus on the problem in his State of the Union address was helpful, his suggestions for action will not alone solve the problem.
The problem is that Earth's supply of oil will ultimately dry up. Experts are divided about when that will be, maybe late in this century, perhaps early in the next. They do not question that it will ultimately happen. The event can be postponed, perhaps by drilling in areas currently considered unprofitable or environmentally questionable to develop. Deposits of oil shale, where rock must be processed to extract hidden oil, might yield a little more, although the process has hitherto been considered prohibitively expensive. In the end, humans will have to run their world on some alternative source of energy.
Conservation would enable the oil to last longer. But China and India are swallowing up more and more oil as their economies expand at an awesome pace. The United States, the largest consumer of oil of any country in the world, owns about 3 percent of the world's oil reserves, and consumes about 25 percent of global production. The recent high price of oil, hovering around the $60-a-barrel mark, has encouraged some Americans to use their big SUVs less, or to explore buying more fuel-efficient cars, but this is a miniscule drop in a very big bucket of consumption. Although there can be grand talk of making the US self-sufficient in oil, it is a pipe dream. As long as Americans consume as much as they do, they will need to import oil from regions of the world, such as the Middle East, that are considered unstable.
President Bush announced an Advanced Energy Initiative. One objective is to change the way Americans power their homes and offices. This would mean development of emissions-free coal-fired plants, new solar and wind technologies, and safe nuclear energy.
The other objective is to change the way Americans power their automobiles. This means producing more efficient hybrid and electric and hydrogen-powered cars. It means trying, by 2013, to produce ethanol not just from corn, but from wood chips, stalks, or switch grass.
It sounds like an admirable plan, but presidents before Mr. Bush have dreamed of making the US energy-independent, with little progress to show. One of the most dramatic and effective ideas to sharply reduce US oil intake is at hand but will not be tried. That is to tax gasoline at another dollar, or two, or three a gallon, bringing it to the price level of some European countries. That would not only sharply cut consumption but also provide a bonanza for research into alternative energy.
Such a move is considered political suicide for any proponent, especially given the recent public furor over gasoline at $3 a gallon caused by current market forces. Bush, like presidents before him, seeks solutions that will cause little or no pain to voting consumers.
The answer must lie in some remarkable technological advances in both the kind of car and the kind of fuel that Americans use. This would require a program of extraordinary vision and scope like the Manhattan Project, which was devised to develop the atomic bomb, or the Apollo Project, launched to conquer space. But the Bush administration is offering no hope of funding for such a project.
As foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum points out in his new book, "The Case for Goliath," the Manhattan Project and others were developed entirely outside the commercial economy. A new energy system for the US, he argues, must be fully integrated into that economy. "New energy technologies, to replace existing ones," he writes, "will have to be profitable, just as extracting, refining, and selling oil are."
The energy crunch is a challenge - and opportunity - made for American genius and innovation. Venture capitalists are currently seized by it, moving money into start-up companies focusing on fuel alternatives.
Let us hope that in laboratories across the US, white-coated scientists and inventors are making strides in developing alternative products to fuel our needs. A solution is more pressing for Americans as they weigh the vulnerability of oil supplies from such countries as Iran, Venezuela, and Nigeria.
In the meantime, conservation on the part of consumers might be in the national, as well as personal, interest.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.