What We Need Is Policy; We Are Swilling Oil Faster Than New Fields Are Being Discovered

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Byline: Jane Bryant Quinn (Reporter Associate: Temma Ehrenfeld)

Going green is fine, but it didn't stop drivers from hitting the road on the Fourth of July. Nor were they stopped by the high price of gasoline, despite all the screaming a couple of months ago. Over the holiday, regular blends averaged $2.93 a gallon--almost back to the $3.07 post-Katrina high. Yet we grumbled and paid. We need stronger energy policies, if only to save us from ourselves.

The open secret is that most Americans still can afford to fill their tanks. At current prices, it costs a typical driver just $430 more a year to travel 15,000 miles, compared with the price 12 months ago, says Jim Kliesch of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Light-truck and SUV drivers pay $584 more. New surveys say that it might take $4 gas to get people to change their driving habits much. And even that won't have much impact on the looming fuel crisis.

At bottom, the oil story is pretty simple. The world is swilling petroleum faster than new fields are being discovered. For now, enough is still being pumped to meet the growth in demand--but just barely. The United States can drain Alaska dry and dot the ocean with oil rigs, but we can't drill our way out of this global hole. Production is declining in most of the countries outside the OPEC cartel, even with new sources such as Canadian tar sands. At some point--perhaps in the next few years--OPEC will also be pumping at diminishing rates. "There may be a limit to supply," U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told an international forum last month. "There is a perception of concern about what's going to happen in the future."

I'll say. The world relies on liquid fuels to carry food to markets, heat homes, power national defense, ferry workers to jobs and move families through their lives. When shortages develop, prices rise--hurting personal budgets and the national balance of payments, too. There's no reason to think we've seen the worst.

To protect ourselves and our economy, the order of business should be: sound a national call for conservation, invest heavily in energy efficiency, drill for any oil we've got and embark on crash programs (with tax incentives) to manufacture petroleum alternatives on a large scale.

But we've been mostly diddling around. The private investment going into new energy sources is baby stuff compared with the spending on oil. The government upped its research grants and loans for energy alternatives, but not for conservation, where results come fast. President George W. Bush's 2007 budget cuts spending on projects to improve energy efficiency, BusinessWeek reports. …