Another in the He Said She Said series, which appears in the nine Berks-Mont newspapers along with Toni Colon's opposite opinion.

We Must Be Masters Of Our Own Energy Fate

Berks-Mont Newspapers    July 24, 2008

Who is responsible for the high cost of petroleum products? Arab oil sheiks? Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez? Greedy oil companies? A president whose family made its money in Texas Tea? Whoops, time's up! The correct answer is - none of them. It is everyone who still drives a gas-guzzler, uses a new plastic shopping bag for every little purchase, and lights up their house like a Broadway marquee. Just look out your window. Or in the mirror.

The world's economy is overwhelmingly fossil fuel-based, with a demand that's outstripping supply. America gets about 85 percent of its power from oil, natural gas and coal. And it was easy to be ostriches when oil was as cheap as water. We didn't even learn from the 1970's politically-inspired Arab embargo; our dependence on foreign oil has been increasing. We used to import one-third of our needs. Now it is more like two-thirds. And it will be a lifetime until nuclear, solar, geothermal, and wind are real factors in our power supply.

What we need now is a national energy policy - something that, incredibly, we have never successfully addressed. It must have two components: conservation and a decreased dependence on uncertain foreign suppliers in the short term, and alternative fuels for the future. We have to use less, and create more. We can't continue to go to war every time our flow is threatened. The "use less" conservation part is already underway. Gas at $4+ a gallon will do that. But creating more takes time. No one who is reading this column today will be alive when (or if) any of the renewable sources ever replace oil in our society. Until we find another way to power our cars, trucks, boats, and planes (no matter how fuel efficient), and blacktop our roads, and make our ubiquitous shopping bags, water bottles, and other plastics without oil, we are stuck with our self-imposed thirst for black gold.

Unfortunately, our existing domestic oil supplies are being depleted, and we have no other short-term options. We need to tap reliable new areas, like our own offshore fields, to hold us over until affordable renewable sources are available. Sixteen billion barrels, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, doing no good for anyone unless we bring it up. And we must act soon. Even if offshore exploration is approved today, we won't see results at the pump for at least seven to 10 years, according to The American Petroleum Institute.

Wait! Stop! Before the concept panics you, it may not be what you fear. Swimmers won't be having close encounters with giant war-of-the-worlds platforms on Atlantic City beaches. During the early days of offshore exploration, rigs were allowed just about anywhere. But a Congressional moratorium in 1982, and two executive orders, now forbid drilling within 200 miles of the US coast, until 2012. While proposed new legislation would reduce that distance, every bill would give states the right to veto drilling less than 100 miles off of their coasts. You wouldn't even see a rig, let alone bump into one.

If you are worried about the possibility of an accident, the last serious drilling mishap in this country was in 1969, when a spill damaged beaches in Santa Barbara. But that occurred because the Union Oil platform was only six miles offshore, with few of the important safety standards now required. CNNMoney.com reported in May "Numbers from the (federal government's) Minerals Management Service show the industry has greatly improved their environmental record. Also, countries like Canada and Norway, hardly known for being environmental mavericks, pursue aggressive offshore drilling plans". The non-political Christian Science Monitor, while noting that two-thirds of Americans favor offshore drilling, explained "Many environmentalists now recognize these advances and work with oil firms to find a middle ground in allowing new exploration in existing fields. Look at how the existing rigs in the Gulf survived the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita with minimal spills. Most of the danger from ocean oil spills lies in transport of imported crude".

Of course, alternative energy sources have monumental risks of their own. The last license to result in the construction and operation of a new nuclear plant in the United States was issued in 1973. Since the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster, the industry has been paralyzed by a combination of public fear, low oil prices, and disputes over where to safely store all of that spent plutonium, which is expected to jump by 50 percent in the next 20 years. TMI and Chernobyl were big headlines, but there have also been accidents in Idaho, Tennessee, Detroit, Switzerland, East Germany, and four in Japan. An oil spill could be contained and treated 100 miles offshore. The same can not be said for a nuclear release in our backyards.

On June 11, Joseph P. Kalt, professor of political economy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, told a forum on energy policy "The future as we look out at the next 25 to 50 years will be dominated by oil. We can talk, we can invent, we can cajole each other to be conservationists. We can invent new technologies, but it's a future that will be dominated by the world oil market, a market that, in terms of supply, will become more and more concentrated in the Middle East."

The very last people we want to have control of our economy are in the Middle East. Embargos. Politics. Jihad. If we are not masters of our own energy supply, we will always be subject to their whims, and those of the world's newly-emerging consumer nations. While industrialized countries like the US, Canada, Japan, and most of Europe have peaked in terms of consumption, China, India, African states, and even middle-class Arabs are the new kids on the petro block. Former third-worlders, just waiting to fill up the cars they can finally afford, with gasoline prices subsidized by their governments.

We long ago declared ourselves politically independent, but we won't truly be free until we can do the same economically.