Although gasoline prices are down slightly for the moment, this war against terrorism
imperils America's long-term access to cheap oil. And if the Mideast conflict refocuses us on
energy self-sufficiency, that would be a constructive byproduct.
For one thing, world oil production will peak during this decade. An important new book, ''Hubbert's
Peak,'' by the eminent oil geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, a professor at Princeton University, explains that
world oil output will peak in this decade. It is following the same trajectory as US oil projection, which
began earlier and then peaked more than three decades ago. We now import half our oil. ''Hubbert's
Peak'' is named for the Shell Oil scientist, M. King Hubbert, who correctly calculated that US
production would peak in the early 1970s.
There are no short-term substitutes for gas and oil. When demand exceeds available supply, as we
learned during the two oil crises of the 1970s, prices spike - with devastating effects on the rest of the
economy. That crisis was contrived by the oil cartel. The coming oil crisis will be real.
The second reason for energy sufficiency is national security. It isn't just that the foreign supply is
increasingly unreliable. It's also that oil politics in this century have fueled long-term Muslim
resentment of the West.
Earlier in this century, Britain and America created Mideast kingdoms and sheikdoms, mainly because
our oil companies wanted cheap access to the region's oil. During the Cold War era we needed these
allies to encircle the Soviet Union. When puppet leaders like the shah of Iran were overthrown, the
successor regimes were without exception militantly anti-American.
Divorcing America's true national security from Middle East oil politics would gradually remove one
source of long-term regional resentment. We could decide our policy toward Saudi Arabia, for example,
based on a more measured conception of America's national interests rather than the imperatives of
Unfortunately, the administration's energy policy is guided mainly by the idea that we should just find
more exotic and expensive places to keep drilling for oil. This is not surprising given the administration's
intimate ties to the petroleum industry.
But as energy visionaries like Amory and Hunter Lovins, codirectors of the Rocky Mountain Institute,
have been pointing out since the first energy crisis, the cheapest and most reliable source of cheap,
plentiful energy is to use less, not to drill for more. Their work, increasingly vindicated by events and
the realities of dwindling petroleum supply, takes on new relevance with the current crisis.
As they point out, better building technology to conserve heat and light as well as more efficient
transportation could easily cut energy consumption in half without reducing living standards. Far from
being utopians, Amory and Hunter Lovins today consult to large corporations that have grasped the
fact that it increases shareholder value to reduce energy costs by using recycled materials in production
and saving on energy use. Shell Oil, of all sources, recently heralded the end of the petroleum age and
announced that it would emphasize the development of new, renewable technologies.
Even existing technologies - everything from wind-power to hybrid cars - could drastically reduce our
dependence on foreign oil. Toyota's Prius car, a gas-electric hybrid, gets 50 miles per gallon, and the
Lovins Rocky Mountain Institute is developing a variant of Prius technology to build a 100
Besides conservation and new renewable technology, a third element of the approach is decentralized
technology, such as solar and wind power. The latter is now the fastest-growing source of new energy
Big, centralized power stations are sitting ducks for terrorist attack.
Nuclear plants would suffer meltdowns of their core if they took a direct hit from a large aiplane, which
would expose millions of people to radiation poisoning. By definition, small and decentralized energy
supply is not vulnerable to such attack.
We should be pursuing this path in any case because of what we know about global climate change that
is the direct result of oil consumption and carbon emissions. The Bush administration, uniquely among
major nations, rejected that concern. Now it needs to take a second look based on national security.
This shift to conservation and renewables will arrive soon in any case due to the coming spike in the
price of oil. But it would be far better if it came deliberately, through a national commitment to a
different energy path. Unfortunately, such a shift is likely to come helter-skelter as the administration
subsidizes with taxpayer dollars one last and ultimately futile push for more oil.