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COLUMN

It’s A Gas

Eric J. Plosky

Last year, I decided to buy a little car -- a practical, fuel-efficient runabout. “Don’t you want an SUV?” some of my friends asked. “A big, huge, gas-guzzling behemoth of a vehicle?” No, said I, and I stood by my choice.

Now I’m laughing all the way to the pump.

A barrel of oil cost $11 at the end of 1998. Today, the price tag is $34, or more. Stung by declining profits throughout the 1990s, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, has over the past year successfully reduced production in order to hike the price of oil. Now the worldwide supply of crude is not only expensive but short -- 2 million barrels a day short, to be precise.

That’s right, we’re talking about OPEC here -- the same cartel that in the 1970s shocked America with a well-executed embargo of the black stuff. The 1973 oil crisis caused prices to skyrocket, motorists to queue at gas stations, and Richard Nixon to implore homeowners to adopt conservation measures. Reducing the country’s dependence on foreign energy became a national priority and was a particular interest of President Carter, who was keen on federal experimentation with domestic solar, wind and water power.

Eventually, Ronald Reagan figured it was easier to just keep buying OPEC oil, and he killed federal alternative-energy programs. Then George Bush orchestrated the Gulf War to demonstrate that America would defend its supply of oil no matter the cost. It seemed we had triumphed over OPEC.

Several times, the cartel tried to restrict production in order to raise prices. But each time, at least one member state wouldn’t go along, maintaining production for extra profits. As went one, so went all, and OPEC’s disorganization thus kept -- drove -- gas prices low, enabling Americans to develop an appetite for 8-mile-a-gallon truck-cars.

Finally, this past year, OPEC got its act together, and for the first time all member states adhered to a production cut, of 4 million barrels a day. As a result, gasoline prices are now stratospheric. The U.S. Energy Department predicted a $1.80 per-gallon price tag by summer; less conservative private analysts warn of the price reaching $2.50 -- more than a 250 percent increase since last February.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has flown to the Middle East to beg Saudi Arabia to step up production, but so far OPEC hasn’t moved. Consequently, hawkish senators are pressing for cutting off military aid to OPEC countries, and even dyed-in-the-wool Republicans like Alaska’s Frank Murkowski are sheepishly calling for alternative energy research.

Profit-driven OPEC, however, is not to blame for this gas-price crisis; we are. A country driving around in four-ton sport-utility vehicles has no right whatsoever to complain when a full tank of premium unleaded costs $60. That’s the way the market goes. He who complains that his commute now costs twice as much should reconsider his decisions to buy a Ford Executioner and to live sixty miles from work in a car-dependent suburb.

The current crisis was caused by our complacency, our poor energy and development policies, and our recent ham-fisted diplomacy. Motorists are still just as dependent on OPEC oil today as they were in 1973, waiting in line for gas -- and this time, there’s no excuse. The ludicrous American obsession with four-ton land monsters has finally, in the light of worldwide economic reality, been exposed for the sham it is.

America fell asleep to the soothing gurgle of cheap oil. Now that we’re awake, it’s time to build a sustainable energy supply for the future.