Monday, May 15, 2006


America is Restricted (Not Addicted) to Oil

(Published by The Chicago Tribune May 12, 2006)

When President Bush first declared that “America is addicted to oil” it sounded about right to me. But after months of repetition, the once clever analogy now strikes me as the wrong diagnosis. We aren’t addicted to oil. We’re restricted to oil.

There is a significant difference between the two conditions. Addiction is a compulsive need for a habit-forming, harmful substance. Our need for energy is neither compulsive nor harmful to us. We require energy to heat our homes, to cook our food, to power the industries that employ us and to move us between home and work. These activities are habit-forming only in the sense that we are in the habit of staying alive and making a living. It’s true that we could and should be more efficient in our use of energy, but energy consumption is not an addiction, it’s a necessity.

It might seem like meaningless word-parsing to point out that we are not technically addicted to oil. But we can’t get beyond this recurring crisis until we clearly understand how we got into this mess in the first place. In retrospect, it’s obviously shortsighted that any country would allow itself to become so dependent on one source of energy. And it’s downright suicidal to rely on foreign governments who are openly hostile to American interests for our primary source of energy. Year after year, we willingly transfer a significant portion of our national wealth to dictators and otherwise corrupt governments who in turn use our money to enrich themselves, perpetuate their corruption and oppose our interests at every opportunity. If that isn’t the official definition of stupid it should be.

Our strategy of letting free market forces determine the most cost effective sources of energy is seriously flawed. The oil market is not a free market. It’s dominated by cartels that manipulate supply. They cleverly raise and lower supply to ensure maximum profits while at the same time taking care that the price of gasoline doesn’t go so high that alternative energy sources would be an attractive investment for private enterprise.

Though we are not addicted to oil, there are two underlying national addictions that perpetuate the energy crisis. One is our addiction to living for today at the expense of economic health and security tomorrow. The other is an addiction to pandering that afflicts our elected officials. We are short-sighted pocketbook junkies and our leaders keep passing us the needle loaded with another feel-good dose of flawed energy policy.

The President and Congress need to stop pandering and start leading. This is an opportunity made-to-order for a President who wants to be remembered for taking on the big problems. Mr. President, it’s time to stop bunting the runners along and start swinging for the fences — and the only fence within our homerun range is ethanol. So let’s get on with it. Ford and General Motors already manufacture automobiles that run on either gas or ethanol. We should require this flex-fuel capability in every new car sold in America, including imports. If we need to provide subsidies for domestic automobile manufacturers, ethanol producers and fuel distributors to make the ethanol alternative cost effective, do it. As the price of gas decreases in response to declining demand created by the ethanol alternative, increase taxes on gasoline to keep it from undercutting ethanol sales. The new gas tax revenue would easily pay for the initial investment required to force ethanol into the energy marketplace.

Most of us wish that government intervention in the marketplace could be avoided. But it’s time we face up to the fact that there are times when it’s necessary. And this is surely one of them. Let’s hope our pandering leaders find the backbone needed to end America’s restriction to oil.

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