There is a direct, inescapable connection between our war on terrorism and our nation's dependence on the internal combustion engine.
If the United States did not need oil, it's a safe bet we would not be so heavily, and dangerously, engaged in the Middle East. Yet the U.S. Congress seems at great pains to ignore that costly connection.
If ever there were a moment to connect the dots and lay the foundation for a rational long-term energy policy that lessens our dependence on oil, it is now, when bombs are falling in Afghanistan and Americans are bracing for the arrival of body bags from a foreign killing field.
But a timid Congress once again is backing away from this challenge. It has abandoned its effort to enact a promised broad new energy policy this session. That is a dangerous dereliction of duty.
The United States long has equated energy security simply with feeding the rapacious internal combustion engine upon which our economy rests. That is politically, militarily and environmentally untenable for the future.
In the effort to assure access to oil, the United States has entered into unsavory alliances, most notably in the Middle East. Each day, for example, this country imports 700,000 barrels of oil from Iraq's Saddam Hussein. To get oil, we defile holy places in Saudi Arabia by stationing our troops in them, enraging the inhabitants.
This strategy has high financial, political and environmental costs. But they have been hidden from most Americans, who blithely tool along their highways burning gasoline that costs them a quarter of what consumers in other nations pay for it.
On Sept. 11, though, the real costs of our failed energy policy should have become more visible.
Yet Congress continues to seek 19th century solutions to a 21st century energy problem. The Republican leadership insists that opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling is the answer to our energy needs. That's a remarkably silly energy security strategy, given that any oil that would come from there is 10 years from market and would be but a relatively brief source of oil.
The House of Representatives' energy bill, passed in August, gets it exactly backward. It gives generous tax breaks to the oil, electric and nuclear industries but comparatively paltry ones to development of conservation and the renewable energy solutions that can provide genuine energy independence. The Senate has yet to act.
It's not that no one knows what to do. The solutions are multiple and well understood. They should be implemented now so there can be a gradual, orderly reduction of our need to burn oil. Phasing out the internal combustion engine, not finding more conveniently obtainable oil for a technology that's destroying Earth's climate, must be the primary focus of any energy security policy.
In the near term, conservation, with an emphasis on production of energy-efficient machines and vehicles, ought to be the highest priority. Yet Congress, ever the handmaiden of industry, stubbornly refuses to enact such obvious and technologically easy solutions as requiring that Detroit produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Meanwhile, alternative energy sources must be aggressively developed so they can be phased in over time. An electric or hydrogen- cell auto solution, for example, cannot be readily available on the day the last drop of oil is squeezed from the Earth unless we invest in such technology now.
The same is true for solar and wind power, which enjoy so little government support that they now cannot compete economically with heavily subsidized forms of oil-based energy. And a top new energy priority must be the bankrupt passenger rail system, which is more energy-efficient than planes.
A typical example of the benighted thinking that has led this country into its present oil-dependent energy morass is the present conflict between the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. The DOE is trying to abort an EPA requirement that home central air conditioners be 30 percent more efficient.
EPA administrator Christine Whitman says EPA will try not to retreat on the new standard, which industry opposes. But she added that EPA officials "obviously have an obligation to also make sure that the industry can continue to function."
Wrong. The government's obligation is to provide for our nation's energy security by reducing energy consumption, not to prop up industries that can't deliver climate friendly energy efficiency. Congress and the Bush administration must invest in the interest of the nation, not those of industry.
Afghanistan is helping to make clear how costly a subsidy we pay for an oil-dependent economy.
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