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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Bush's Drill-It Energy Policy Is Out of Steam

November 23, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

Didn't that old Cold Warrior Richard Nixon have a change of heart and embrace "Red" China? And sure enough, Ronald Reagan signed a law liberalizing abortion in California before becoming the leading anti-abortion politician in the land. Even Bill Clinton was full of surprises, stealing welfare reform from right under the noses of conservatives.

So let me wish upon a star. Anything weird can happen in presidential politics, can't it?

Now, George W. Bush, swept up by the calamity of events, has set the stage for his own great reversal. The President from Oil is just the man, at just the right moment and for all the right reasons, to take us into a new energy future.

A Democrat might not be able to pull it off given the partisan atherosclerosis in Congress. But Republican Bush could.

He could draw from his own recent speeches: "I see, out of this sadness and grief, an opportunity for America to reexamine our culture.... I see an opportunity to make the world a better place for generations to come."

All he'd have to do is plug in a few extra words. Words like "energy conservation," "all-out research for tomorrow's fuels," "tightened mileage standards."

Energy is America's Achilles' heel. And never more than now.

Let's look back: In 1973, Arab anger over U.S. support for Israel led to an embargo on oil exports. At the time, America imported 35% of its oil, half from the OPEC cartel.

In the intervening years, the country has suffered gasoline lines and rationing. Heating oil shortages closed factories and schools. Repeated shocks hit the economy. Presidents promised to make the U.S. energy self-sufficient. Oil production from Alaska's North Slope began. A federal Energy Department was created. The Exxon Valdez ran into a reef. U.S. troops fought a Mideast war to keep the oil flowing. Fashion trends gave rise to the SUV and a devil-may-care attitude about gas. We've all become aware of global warming as a threat to the planet.

And the result? Today, we import 53% of our oil, half still coming from the Muslim-dominated OPEC.

For nearly a generation, the U.S. has fumbled and ducked on energy, knowing that matters are worsening but putting the thought aside, hoping the bill collectors will take their time. I think of all the political hot air expended in the name of making this a better country for America's children. All the while we cross our fingers, implicitly wishing that the reckoning on energy occurs in their lifetime, not ours.

Last summer, Bush mapped an energy policy that would prop us up on a stool with only one wobbly leg: more drilling.

For perspective: Oil production on Alaska's North Slope, the last great find that was supposed to get the country on the road to energy independence, reached its peak in 1988 and is declining. Now attention is turned to the adjacent wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. No one is sure how much oil may lie beneath the tundra, but federal experts say there is a high probability of about 5.7 billion barrels of recoverable crude, perhaps 10.3 billion barrels.

How much is that? Enough to provide 16 months of energy independence at present consumption. That friends, is what the tooth-and-nail fight in Congress amounts to: enough oil to get today's sixth-graders into middle school.

In the context of last summer, there was at least some political logic to such short-range energy plan. Bush felt he was on solid footing with Saudi Arabia, lowering the risk of an OPEC crisis. Development of the Arctic refuge would stimulate domestic jobs and answer the oilman's lament that "it ain't making money sittin' in the ground." Plus there was wildcatting that could be undertaken in the Rockies and maybe even offshore, which would settle some old scores with environmentalists and pump up Bush's base constituency.

Besides, the country was not in a mood for bold moves. So drop dead, those of you who think we have to do something about global warming. We'll leave that one for our children, and yours.

But then? Let's join in chorus: Everything changed!

The oil equation too. Hawks are pushing Bush to enlarge the war on terrorism and attack Iraq next, with unforeseeable consequences in the Arab and Muslim world. For the moment, oil prices are low. But how long until the next squeeze?

Meanwhile, Americans have awakened to a sense of purpose and unity. If ever the country was ready to embark in a new direction to secure its future, now is the time.

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