Politics & Policy

The Eternal Energy Crisis

We are still too dependent on our enemies.

The imperishability of the energy crisis is one of the howling mysteries of American political science. It has been nearly 40 years since President Nixon founded Project Independence, an effort to regain energy self-sufficiency and stop unreliable oil-exporting states from inconveniencing U.S. national-security policy. At that time, the United States imported 20 percent of its oil, and the price was between $10 and $20 per barrel. The great oil-exporting states of Iran and Venezuela were in the friendly hands of the shah of Iran and democratic, reasonably well-disposed leaders in Caracas.

Most relatively informed people are aware of the general pattern of what has happened since. There has been a double cat-and-mouse game as America has made purposeful, but not very consequential, noises about conservation and alternative energy sources, and OPEC and other oil exporters have increased oil production but failed to raise supply adequately to meet demand.

The simultaneous game has been the inflation of the Western currencies in a treadmill to oblivion that in fact exceeds published figures, and where the desirability of disguising the real rate of inflation dovetailed conveniently with the ambitions of the political class not to appear to be cavalier about debasing the value of money. This process has been roughly accompanied by the syncopated rise in the price of oil, from $3 to $80 in 40 years — 2,600 percent, or 65 percent annually, leaving out the sharpest price fluctuations.

In the nearly 40 years since Mr. Nixon’s warnings about oil’s threat to national independence, and the more than 30 years since President Carter donned his cardigan beside the roaring White House fireplace and told the nation to lower its thermostats, U.S. oil consumption has almost doubled, the dollar has been substantively devalued, the price of a barrel of oil has risen to $80 with spikes to $125, and the U.S. now imports 60 percent of its oil, a billion dollars a day piled on to its bone-cracking current-account deficit.

Some of the largest oil suppliers, such as Saudi Arabia, while ostensible allies, have also played footsie with terrorists who have destabilized other American allies and inflicted savage violence on the continental U.S., for the first time since a British and Canadian shore party chased President Madison out of Washington with a painting of the capital’s namesake under his arm, and burned down the White House.

As America has wallowed in oil dependency, it has effectively been financing both sides in the battle with militant Islam. Saudi Arabia is a joint venture between the House of Saud and the extremist Wahhabi establishment. It has 2 percent of the world’s Muslims, but controls 90 percent of the world’s Islamic institutions, through which it propagates violent intolerance of the West, secularism, Jewry, homosexuality, and even other Muslim groups, such as Shiites, the Iranian and Iraqi majority.

Oil imports have been one of the colossal policy failures of U.S. history, aggravated by the steroid-bloated canard that the problem can be solved by erecting windmills and clapping solar panels like limpets to almost everything. It is surprising, given the fecundity of the conspiratorial mind, that the whole global-warming alarm, the scientific evidence for which has been seriously undermined, has not been labeled a ruse and a snare of OPEC and the treasonable oil companies to draw America farther into the Venus fly trap of fantasy remedies to a huge but uncomplicated problem of supply and demand.

No easily imaginable tactical blunder has gone unimplemented. As the American automobile industry floundered toward bankruptcy, the one popular area that was tariff-protected was relatively high-gasoline-consumption SUVs and small trucks. As the financial storm clouds gathered over Detroit (well before that city’s skies were made even murkier by the smoking crotch of the Nigerian petro-panties bomber), General Motors drove into the future and over the cliff in the gas-guzzling Hummer, like the Polish army deploying more horse cavalry to meet German and Soviet tanks in 1939.

Nuclear power was virtually halted after the scare at Three Mile Island and the alarmist Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts films Silkwood and Erin Brockovich. Kuwait was cleared of Iraqi invaders in the brilliant Desert Storm campaign, with the highest ratio of enemy to allied casualties since Alexander the Great allegedly killed 50,000 Persians in the Battle of Gaugamela in one day in 331 B.C. Kuwait dutifully paid America back a significant amount of the cost of its liberation, and many Americans, including the Bush family, have done well financially with post-liberation Kuwait, but the U.S. did not get a drop of oil from Kuwait on forward contracts at pre-set prices.

Iraq was liberated from the cruel and heavy dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent in the reconstruction of the country. The U.S. should have installed a replacement regime earlier and agreed to turn Iraq into a Middle Eastern Texas, in exchange for large quantities of oil at historic prices as it raised Iraqi production from two million to ten million barrels a day. Instead, the U.S. has been lambasted in the world, and at home, by Leninist “useful idiots” who shall be nameless, such as Sean Penn, for seeking oil, of which it has not secured one barrel.

If U.S. strategic policy in the World War II and Cold War years had been so inept, the Nazis, Communists, and Japanese imperialists would rule all the world except patches of the Americas, where, as President Roosevelt warned in 1940 could happen, “We would be living at the point of a gun . . . in a prison whose inhabitants are handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.”

Of the top ten energy-exporting countries, only Norway and Canada are friendly and stable democracies, and none of the 22 countries which derive more than 75 percent of their exports from oil could be so described: Oil is a force for the domestic oppression, or at least misgovernment, of hundreds of millions of people. As former CIA director James Woolsey wrote in the Wall Street Journal on April 15, “OPEC sets oil’s price at a level that exploits our addiction, but is generally not high enough for long enough that we go cold turkey.”

The moves to conversion of coal to liquid fuel in the 1980s and to hydrogen-powered vehicles in the last decade, like gestures to conservation, were stifled by OPEC price cuts. The core of the problem is that 95 percent of U.S. transportation fuel costs are petroleum-based, and this, not home heating and air conditioning, is the cause of the dependence on foreign oil. All of the measures mentioned above, including nuclear and green power, are palliatives.

After this tale of woe and incompetence, there are signs of hope. The greatest and fastest short-term relief is electric cars, which are happening, and electric-valve-and-chip fuel-consumption controls on gasoline-powered cars. Heavy interstate-road vehicles should be reformatted to natural-gas power, which is easily done, and all gasoline-powered vehicles should be enabled to take fuel additives, such as ethanol, which should, within reason, be encouraged.

These simple measures would create a world buyers’ market in oil, a factor that could probably be traded for useful political favors from rising-oil-consumption countries like China, such as in relations with North Korea and Iran. This would buy the time for longer-term measures to be implemented. To use a notorious expression, this really is “settled science.” If it were explained simply, the country would massively support such a program, which is already progressing almost spontaneously. What, apart from common sense and leadership in the places where the country has every right to expect them, are we waiting for?

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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