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Untangling the Oil Web

Michael J. Ring

The recent dramatic increase in the cost of home heating oil illustrates perfectly a potential national nightmare that is rarely discussed in public discourse -- the stranglehold of foreign nations on our energy supply.

In recent weeks the price of home heating oil in the frigid Northeastern states has skyrocketed from 80 cents a gallon to 2 dollars a gallon. The price increase has been so sudden and debilitating that the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation has had to suspend applications for its elderly and low-income fuel assistance program. Consumers -- and the local oil dealers -- have been left out in the cold.

Allegations of profiteering by the large, multinational oil producers have surfaced, and given the extreme jump in prices, an investigation into their practices is justified. Earlier this week, Rhode Island Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, in an attempt to determine if price gouging is occurring, demanded that the nine largest oil wholesale suppliers in his state provide his office with financial information.

While any of these companies deserve harsh punishment if the allegations of profiteering are proved, sanctions against oil wholesalers will not provide a structural solution to America’s foreign energy dependence. The only solution to this potentially devastating problem is domestic development of renewable energy sources.

The attempts of the Carter administration to reduce American dependence on foreign oil in the wake of the 1973 embargo instituted by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have not been sustained. The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission calculates that imported oil comprises 56 percent of American petroleum consumption, and estimates that that figure could rise to 68 percent by 2010.

Drilling for more domestic supplies of oil, however, is not the best long-term answer to our nation’s energy needs. Petroleum is a limited natural resource, and while developing new domestic supplies might buy us several more decades of cheap, available oil, given the nation’s increasing rate of energy consumption we will drain the supply eventually and then be in the same bind. Additionally, petroleum is a fossil fuel, and the burning of even the cleanest petroleum still releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The United States is a vast country with several different topological and climatological regions. Fortunately, a clean, renewable form of energy production can be found for most, if not all, regions of the nation. Perhaps most obviously, solar energy should be the future method of production for our nation’s desert southwest. Wind-driven turbines should play a role in energy production for the Rockies and Great Plains states. Maine may wish to take advantage of large tides there by constructing a tidal power station similar to one operating in La Rance, France.

The development of alternative energy resources fulfills two important goals. First, and most obviously, it reduces the air pollution and the contribution of energy production to global warming. Many of America’s cities are choking on smog, and much of this air pollution comes not from highly regulated passenger vehicles but from the dirty stacks of coal power plants. Reducing emissions stemming from electricity generation is necessary to solving the United States’ air pollution problem, and renewable, nonpolluting electricity production is the means to accomplish that goal.

A second advantage of developing domestic renewable energy resources is the reduction of OPEC influence on our economy. OPEC is the root of this current crisis -- unhappy with inflation-adjusted oil prices nearing Depression-era levels, OPEC members last year agreed to reduce production. Actions of wholesalers or dealers are essentially peripheral to the current crisis, for if OPEC had maintained its previous production level, the winter bump in the price of heating oil would have been far more gentle.

Simply put, the United States should not allow a handful of dictatorships and fiefdoms to strangle the American economy at will. With over 50 percent of our oil coming from foreign sources, however, this is exactly the situation that exists.

Development of domestic energy sources also extracts us from the prickly politics of the Middle East, a region in which the United States should have few concerns. Of course, as it now stands, America must be hyperconcerned with our relations with nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We are so tied to these nations that we are willing to fight wars for their oil. But this concern for our oil-rich friends has only resulted in inane policies regarding our oil-rich enemies.

The quality of our relations with Iraq, for example, is inversely proportional to the amount of meddling we undertake in the Middle East. Just last week the United States seized a Russian tanker full of Iraqi oil. At a time when the world is desperate for a short-term energy supply, lifting the embargo on Iraqi oil makes sense, especially considering that the embargo hurts ordinary Iraqi citizens, not Saddam Hussein. But the chances of the United States, entangled deep in the web of oil politics, lifting this embargo are slim-to-none.

After the weather warms and the oil crisis has passed, America’s politicians and public would be well-advised to remember the benefits of a clean, domestic supply of energy. A system of internal renewable energy production is the only guarantee that situations such as this will not arise in winters to come.