PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
March 14, 2006

Curing the Addiction

by Jim Newsom

Six weeks ago in his State of the Union speech, President Bush declared, "We have a serious problem. America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.”

Stating what has long been obvious to most serious observers, the president essentially added another verse to what has become the repetitious refrain of this administration: “I don’t think anyone could have anticipated…” And like those same lame lyrics after the terrorist attacks, the chaos of Iraq, the devastation of New Orleans and the debacle of the Medicare prescription drug implementation, the realization that America’s dependence on foreign oil is a time bomb waiting to explode is nothing new.

Bush himself tried to blame last year’s high gasoline prices on Bill Clinton at a press conference last spring, saying, “Ten years ago, if we’d had an energy strategy, we would be able to diversify away from foreign dependence. But we haven’t done that, and now we find ourselves in the fix we’re in.”

Oh, how the Republicans depend on the American people to have short memories that are easily manipulated. In fact, recognition of our energy vulnerability goes back at least to the days of Richard Nixon in the early ‘70s. After the 1973 Arab oil embargo, it became apparent to most everyone that our country needed to wean itself off its thirst for petroleum-derived energy.

One of the first things President Jimmy Carter did upon taking office in 1977 was to lay out a plan for slowing the nation’s escalating energy appetite and breaking its reliance on oil sheiks and petrol pirates. On February 2, two weeks after his inauguration, he sat in the oval office in a tie and cardigan sweater to give his first televised “Report to the American People on Energy,” discussing the importance of a national energy policy that stressed conservation of natural resources.

On the evening of April 18, 1977, he once again donned his sweater and went on TV to say, “With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge that our country will face during our lifetime. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It's a problem that we will not be able to solve in the next few years, and it's likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.

“We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and our grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

He proposed a national energy plan based on “ten fundamental principles,” including conservation, protecting the environment, reducing exposure to the whims of other nations, fairness, and development of “unconventional sources of energy” for the next century. He set specific goals to be achieved by 1985 that included a reduction in the annual growth rate of energy demand to less than two percent, a decrease in gasoline consumption by ten percent, cutting oil imports in half, improved building insulation and employing solar energy.

President Carter subsequently set an example by installing solar panels on the roof of the White House to provide hot water, and the Democratic congress passed many of his proposals, including tax credits for solar energy, funding for alternative fuel research, and increased gas mileage standards for automobiles.

Individuals responded by buying smaller, more fuel efficient cars, and for the next ten years average gas mileage consistently rose, gas prices fell, and we virtually eliminated our need for oil from the Persian Gulf. The OPEC cartel was broken.

But the first thing Ronald Reagan did when he became president in 1981 was to very publicly pull the solar panels off the White House, setting in motion the mindset that would lead to a spike in oil imports by the second half of the decade, continuously declining gas mileage figures from 1987 on, and the rise of gas-guzzling SUVs in the ‘90s. It is the mindset that ultimately gave us our first all-oilmen presidency, mideast oil oligarchies, well funded terrorist organizations and a skyrocketing national debt financed by foreign governments.

Now that we have squandered the last twenty years and find ourselves more dependent on unpredictable petroleum potentates than ever---and with India and China ramping up their demand for the same finite supply of raw energy sources---what can we do to make up for lost time?

The idea of a 50-cent per gallon gas tax has been floating around for a number of years. Ross Perot included it in his 1992 presidential campaign, and Time magazine proposed it in a list of ideas to “save the earth” in 1989. Needless to say, the idea never took hold among congressional taxophobes.

But gasoline prices jumped by about 80 cents a gallon during a 90-day period from last June to September, with the final 45 cents being attributed to Hurricane Katrina. Since then, they’ve fallen back down until they’re actually lower than they were before the summer rise. But as a result of the sudden price increase, consumers began changing their behavior, particularly their car buying habits. Hummer and other SUV sales plummeted, and the demand for hybrids took off.

So picture what would’ve happened had there been a 50-cent gas tax in place several years earlier. First of all, there would be more fuel efficient cars on the road. There would be few if any of those dangerous monster gas guzzlers, so the roads would be safer. Follow-the-leader automakers would have responded by focusing their production capacities on earth-friendly gas misers because that’s what we’d be demanding. Oil companies and foreign governments would be taking less out of our pockets; we’d be paying ourselves instead.

The federal deficit wouldn’t be as large, even with Bush’s reverse Robin Hood economic policies; there would be more money available for research into the alternatively powered vehicles of the future; the air would be cleaner; mass transit options would be more appealing and more widely available; we would be doing at least a tiny bit to slow global warming; we’d have one less reason to instigate wars in the oil fields and we wouldn’t be funding those who are committed to our demise.

So maybe that’s step one: Begin phasing in a higher gas tax while prices are temporarily down. Dedicate the funds raised from its implementation to research and development, and to deficit reduction. Let the free market work, as producers respond to the shifts in consumer demand.

But to take such a bold step requires forward-looking leadership and courage. Empty words alone just don’t cut it. It’s been a long time since we’ve come close to real national leadership. Can any be found today?

Jimmy Carter’s words of 29 years ago still apply: “Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the President and the Congress to govern. This difficult effort will be the ‘moral equivalent of war’---except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy.”

Imagine engaging in a war we could actually win, in which no lives are lost, and from which we’d emerge stronger and more self-sufficient.

copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.