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Humming along: Oil habit no nearer being conquered

The single greatest failure of the last 50 years has been the inability of the West to develop alternative sources of energy. — Adam Garfinkle, senior fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute, former assistant secretary of energy.

Although it varied from place to place, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded went up 10 cents at local gas stations during the two-week holiday period. Merry Christmas. Happy new year.

There's the usual litany of reasons: a strike in the Venezuela oilfields, fears of war with Iraq, refinery capacity problems, OPEC manipulations, etc., etc., etc. During the same period, fuel oil prices were hitting records and natural gas prices went up in concert with the rest of the energy sector. Ho hum, what else is new?

But hey, the auto manufacturers keep cranking out the gas-guzzling SUVs and the new darling luxury vehicle for the movie star-entertainer-Wall Street crowd is not the Mercedes SUV, not the Lexus, not the Escalade or BMW, but the heated leather seats, CD changer-equipped luxury Hummer. At $50,000-plus, the military-bred brute is leaping out of showrooms; GM's got just a 10-day supply and dealers are moving 'em at full sticker price, no haggling, no zero percent financing, no incentives.

It only gets 10 miles or so per gallon, but hey, who worries about that? It's the image, dude. Way cool.

Despite all the breast-beating about dependence on foreign oil, going back to the long gas lines of the first Arab embargo of the 1970s, and the periodic lip service to developing alternate energy sources, the reality is that the U.S. today is more dependent on Mideast oil than in the '70s when we were all driving gas guzzlers and high test was 30 cents a gallon. This despite the nearly 60 percent increase in fuel economy of the average automobile since then.

It's an oil-addicted world, with the U.S. demanding by far the biggest fix, consuming far more than any other nation — half of which is imported (over 10 million barrels per day). For 30-plus years we've lamented being held hostage to the Mideast sheiks, but we've time after time failed to suck up the collective courage to say: Enough, we're going to do what it takes to break this hold.

Is there any doubt, had we three decades ago made an all-out national commitment toward development of alternate energy sources — as John Kennedy committed us to put a man on the moon, kindling an unparalleled era of technological development — that our scientists could not have by now had us on the road to energy independence?

Instead, we continue to flounder, consuming ever more energy, becoming all the more dependent on oil imports, seemingly oblivious to the potential calamity that lies in continuing our tenuous ties to increasingly unstable suppliers, while research is half-hearted, under-funded, and uncoordinated.

Oh well, as long as the gas pumps keep running and we can slake our SUV thirst, we can all take the attitude of Mad magazine's simpleton, Alfred E. Neumann: What? Me worry?


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