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Column: Celebration of independence, alas, doesn’t include energy

On this year’s anniversary of our nation’s independence from tyranny, and three decades-plus after the Arab oil embargo nearly brought this country to its knees, it is a major irony — and failure — that we are no nearer to achieving independence from foreign oil.

The price of gasoline in recent weeks has dropped 10 cents to 15 cents from its highs, and you’d have thought Santa Claus had come early. Immaterial that the pump price is still 40 cents to 50 cents more than a year ago, the attitude seems to be, “Well, at least it’s there.”

Reflecting that nonchalance, the American Petroleum Institute’s latest report shows we’re buying gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks at a dazzling pace, with sales forecast to outpace autos by more than 2 million this year. And one of every 10 autos sold will be in the luxury category, not exactly known for fuel economy.

The U.S. currently gets about 60 percent of its oil from foreign sources, and again citing API forecasts, that is expected to rise to 73 percent by 2025 (barring some other Mideast conflagration or events elsewhere resulting in major supply disruptions).

With the stratospheric prices of the past year, oil companies and related businesses have reported record profits — in the first quarter of this year, some were in the 40 percent to 50 percent range.

The International Energy Agency says oil use in 2004 is projected to grow at a 2.9 percent rate, the highest level in 23 years. “Clearly the demand for oil has not abated,” says U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

Farmers, who have watched ammonia fertilizer costs more than triple in three years’ time and diesel and other energy costs skyrocket, are at the mercy of the market and in no position to pass on their higher costs of production.

The countless extra billions of dollars that are flowing into the coffers of Big Oil are dollars that won’t go toward health care, schools, highway improvements. Nor apparently are they dollars that will be spent on their own industry. In more than 20 years, not one new oil refining facility has been built in the U.S. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Yet, every time a refinery has a malfunction, pump prices go up the next day; that’s how nervous the supply pipeline is. Imagine how that would be multiplied if terrorists were to take out a couple.

A goodly percentage of today’s drivers have no recall of the ’70s embargo that had motorists queuing in blocks-long lines for a chance at a few gallons of gas. Nor do they likely give much thought to how dependent this country is on imported oil, or how quickly our infrastructure would grind to a halt were the spigots to be shut or significantly tightened.

It is absolutely scandalous that the U.S. has frittered away the more than 30 years since the Arab oil embargo without enacting a concentrated program of alternate energy development.

It is equally scandalous that there appears little prospect of anything being done anytime soon to begin freeing this nation from the chokehold of foreign oil.

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