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May 31, 2007

Time Is Running Out

Tony Soltero

There are few political issues as potent with the general public as gas prices. The issue hits everybody. Most of us drive at least a little bit, and thousands of Frederick County residents deal with long commutes to the employment hubs of the Baltimore-Washington metro areas.

But perhaps just as significantly, gas prices are in our faces every day, prominently displayed all along roadsides, and it's all too painfully obvious when they go up. Rising fuel costs resonate with us in ways that rising milk or bread costs don't.

So, the latest upwards spike in gas prices - at a time when we're reassured how "awash" in oil the world remains - has triggered predictable responses from our elected officials. The House of Representatives has passed a bill enabling the U.S. government to sue the infamous OPEC cartel (which isn't anywhere near as powerful today as it was in its late-seventies heyday).

Closer to home, Gov. Martin O'Malley joined 20 other state governors in calling for investigations into oil company price gouging. And Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot has launched his own inquiry into the matter.

All of these initiatives are fine, well, and good. It is certainly worth investigating exactly how much competition there is within the oil industry. After all, a truly competitive, non-monopolistic industry polices itself through market forces.

But these kinds of probes, well-intentioned as they may be, only nibble around the edges of the real issue: Why is America still so dependent upon petroleum, especially foreign oil?

And that question, sadly, is almost never asked by the right people in the right places, which is extremely unfortunate because we're not going to reach anything but the most fleeting resolutions to our energy problems until we summon the courage to confront that issue head-on. As long as our country remains dependent upon a resource largely found in politically volatile and hostile regions of the world, our national security remains tenuous and compromised, at just about every level.

It is truly a massive failure of leadership in America that we're not even having a real debate about weaning ourselves off imported oil - just naive and deceptive pronouncements about how all of our problems would be solved if we could just drill in the Alaskan wilderness, as well as, of course, other ongoing (and staggeringly costly) high-profile efforts to secure oil flows from certain Middle Eastern sources. Our discussion and our actions about energy continue to revolve almost exclusively around short-term gratification.

There's occasional talk about harnessing alternative energy sources, but it's almost always dismissed as "impractical" because of its "cost." With energy providers constrained by short-term profit motives, this would be an obvious place for the federal government to lead the way in research and development to ensure as smooth a transition as possible into a post-oil world; but such efforts haven't been taken seriously by any president since Jimmy Carter first sounded the alarm.

It was the government that laid the groundwork for many technology breakthroughs in America, such as railroads and the Internet; there's no reason it can't do the same with energy. But as long as our government remains in the ideological grip of blind market fundamentalism, we won't see anything significant. Unless the lights start going out, at which point it'll be too late to effect an orderly solution.

We still have time to do something. But the window is closing fast.

With gas at $3 a gallon and rising, it's way past time to move the energy discussion front and center. With oil playing a secondary role.

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