Jewish World Review Feb. 12, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Adar, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- AMONG the critical national security challenges now on America's agenda, few are more important than reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Yes, pursuing terrorists and shoring up our homeland defenses are vital. But protecting ourselves against politically inspired and unanticipated disruptions in oil supplies from abroad is crucial to the smooth running of our economy. It is no secret that the world's major oil reserves lie beneath the burning sands of the Arab Middle East. It's also no secret that that same region is the most unstable in the world.
But how to wean America from oil imports? Short term, the answer is building up America's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. With oil prices relatively low, now is the time. Long term, we must reduce the nation's thirst for energy. But this doesn't mean, as some suggest, doing without. Energy contributes much to our quality of life. It is not profligacy that increases energy demand, but progress.
Conservation, of course, is part of the answer. But with oil prices roughly half what they were 20 years ago, this won't be easyconsumers have little incentive to change their ways. Still, we have managed to keep per capita energy use the same as it was in the early 1970s. But we cannot change the fact that we have 75 million more people today than we had back then. The requirements for new energy in a growing society are real. We should not feel guilty about this.
Environmentalists believe we can resolve the issue with a win-win approach. We can save more oil through energy efficiency, they say, than we can ever drill. They emphasize tougher fuel efficiency standards for passenger vehicles, the so-called CAFE standards originally enacted in 1978. But with several hundred million vehicles on the road, it will take years before most cars show improved fuel efficiency. Realism also dictates phasing in higher fuel efficiency standards over a number of years so as not to impose unbearable costs on manufacturers and purchasers. Improving fuel economy, in other words, will be a long, slow process. And even then, higher efficiency standards will amount to less than a fifth of the oil we'll import until the new standards are in place.
If improved fuel efficiency alone isn't the answer, what is? Energy development, obviously. But there's a rub. Environmentalists say they're not opposed to development. But they seem to find different reasons to oppose it nearly everywhere. The result is that virtually everything is placed out of bounds. We have no new power plants, no new drilling, no new refineries. It has been 25 years since a major oil refinery was built in the United States; 37 have closed since 1992.
Energy use and production are obviously not without their unappealing side effects. As with all other forms of production activity, however, we can contain and minimize those effects through intelligent management and engineering. That's life.
Perhaps nowhere are the naysayers more vociferous than on the question of drilling. But the facts here, once again, intrude. New technologies have dramatically reduced the infrastructure needed to extract oil from the ground. Even with older technologies, wildlife preservation has occurred successfully side by side with petroleum extraction. In Louisiana alone there are over 1,600 oil and gas wells in areas that include fragile wetlands, home to migratory birds and other delicate animal species.
Arctic drilling. Such examples show why, despite environmentalists' objections, it's worth exploring for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Only about 2,000 acres would be affected. That's about the dimension of a fair-size airporta fraction of the more than 19 million refuge acres.
Offshore drilling is another area of contest. The public impression is that offshore rigs are incompatible with ocean purity, marine health, and clean beaches. Yet today there are some 4,500 offshore platforms supplying 10 percent of our oil and 25 percent of our natural gas. Most of the platforms bestride America's richest marine-life zones and cause no damage to the environment. There is irony in the opposition's argument, but it is not funny: If we don't allow this kind of drilling, we will have to import a lot more oil. The many tankers we'll need to deliver that oil pose a far greater threat of spills and environmental damage than drilling.
The need for energy independence has been spotlighted as never before by the war against terrorism. But Democrats and Republicans are at loggerheads over how to proceed. The Bush energy plan gives too much of an impression of focusing solely on increasing energy supplies. Democrats in the Senate place too much emphasis on improvement of fuel efficiencies. The Democrats essentially argue that we can do without new exploration. Republicans do not adequately emphasize conservation. Both are wrong. The country deserves to be told the truth about energy policynamely, that we cannot conserve our way out of the problem. Nor can we drill our way out of it. We need production and conservation. The current deadlock must be