The Price of Cheap Oil
By Jim Oelerich
Cheap oil hurts our country.
That's right, low fuel prices are a mixed blessing. Sure we've built an incredible economy on the back of inexpensive oil, with a few scares here and there, but this high-tech, energy-hungry world is changing fast, and now we're in a bind. With climate change staring us down, daring us to be foolish, and the Middle East tagged by doubt, what has worked in the past is clearly not going to be the answer to our future. Sometimes, customs and cultures have to change, or risk undue hardship, or even extinction - of economy, of lifestyle, of comfort.
President Jimmy Carter accepted this. And while he's been ridiculed and criticized for his Energy Policy, particularly his synthetic fuel program (SynFuel), he was, in my estimation, an energy visionary for his long-range thinking: among other things, he believed in conservation of resources; he believed in the potential of solar power; and he believed in research and development. He knew first hand from the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo during the Nixon Administration -- retribution for the Yom Kippur War -- that being held hostage to imported crude left this country vulnerable. His Energy Tax Act in 1978 fostered development of solar power with substantial tax incentives for businesses and homeowners who installed solar products; in Phoenix some rooftops still have solar hot water heaters, legacy of those years. Carter envisioned that by the year 2000, one fifth of U.S. energy would come from solar power. Regrettably, we're not even close.
Had we only held the course and refined Carter's vision think where solar energy and national security might be today? We'd be selling lots of solar power for one thing; for another, we'd be less involved in the Middle East. Iraq probably would have been a non-issue. Coupled with domestic oil production, imported oil from Canada, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Mexico would probably have been sufficient for our growth and survival. But then, that's hindsight.
I think most people would agree that technology is accelerating at unprecedented rates. The number of new products on the market is daunting, and obviously, the manufacturing marvel is not just the U.S.A.. Staying abreast of technology is no easy game. American business competes against competitive countries that don't have to pay high wages, that don't have an EPA, that don't have our tax burdens, that don't have our laws, etc...
There is one thing, however, that most countries have in common that we don't, and that is they pay a lot for fuel. Ironically, this will work in their favor, because in order for these countries to grow -- and modern economies can't grow unless their energy base also grows -- they will have to be creative and efficient with energy.
You know the saying: "Necessity is the mother of invention"; it rings true for a reason. Necessity ultimately leads to new ideas, fresh technologies, and new business opportunities, opportunities that we will forego in the U.S., if we're not in the race. Japan's hybrid vehicles are an excellent example of this: they lead in the technology; they have the most hybrid vehicles on the road; they're learning, they're adapting. Europe is similar. Fuel efficient diesels are popular there: Europe's response to necessity. The Malaysia government is highly supportive of fuel cells, but not those that function on costly hydrogen production, but those that function on inexpensive readily available metals like aluminum, magnesium, nickel, and zinc. China, according to recent reports is embracing various forms of renewable energies, from fuel cells to windmills. They recently surpassed Japan as the second largest importer of oil and they recently surpassed the U.S. as the largest importer of steel.
The examples go on and on. Many countries, in order to survive, are gathering valuable technical and market place experience, while we seemingly have our talented head buried in some bygone era.
What concerns me is that while we're chasing around the globe securing cheap, sweet crude and pursuing rights for oil to be drilled in anyone's backyard, we're dousing all initiative to be creative in the field of energy. Do we really want other countries leading us into better technologies? Talk about a National Security Issue! And while our Universities perform probably the greatest research in the world, if we're choking ingenuity and not getting products to market because we're overly subsidizing fossil fuels and subsequently denying real costs, we're doing our country an enormous disservice. We need to change our thoughts on energy and we need to change while the price of oil is still cheap, because adopting a more diversified, less centralized energy platform will be no small task and up-front costs will be very high.
Ultimately, someone needs to sit down and calculate the real price of oil. We need to know what oil costs without subsidy, without military protection, without environmental damage, and lastly, what the real price will be by not leading the rest of the world in ingenuity.
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