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Bush Fuel Plan Hastens Energy Crisis

CONGRESS and the president are working toward new energy legislation based on the Bush administration's "National Energy Strategy." Although it is not yet clear precisely what policies will emerge, it is apparent that the president's energy strategy favors increasing fuel production rates rather than decreasing consumption rates. Attempts to boost domestic oil and natural gas production are a major aspect of the proposal. Conspicuously absent are stringent automotive fuel efficiency standards and fuel taxes to discourage waste. For the last 16 years, the petroleum industry drilled in the United States about one-third of the oil wells ever drilled in the 132-year history of oil exploration in the US. Still, US proven reserves of oil have declined from 40 billion barrels to 26 billion barrels during the last two decades. Domestic proven resources of natural gas have decreased from 290 trillion cubic feet in 1970 to 154 trillion cubic feet in 1990. Amounts of US oil and gas discovered per million feet of hole drilled have been declining for decades from a record high during the first half of the 20th century. This petroleum industry history of drilling more and finding less does not portend success for efforts to increase domestic oil or gas output. More than 75 percent of the world's total of oil and gas wells are in the US, which has been more thoroughly explored for these resources than all other countries on earth combined. We have already consumed nearly all of the petroleum discovered in the US, and remaining domestic petroleum resources are very marginal relative to those of many other countries. APPROXIMATELY half of current global oil consumption is accomplished by the world's half-billion road vehicles. The US, with the world's largest per capita ownership of such vehicles, contains roughly a third of the global total of cars and trucks. Considering that less than a twentieth of the world's people live in the US, its allies surely cannot fail to notice that, in large part, gargantuan US oil consumption is ultimately responsible for petroleum supply problems. Our government has expressed concern with the US trade deficit (of which more than half was payment for imported oil in 1990) and with a need to raise taxes. The US imposes a lower surtax on gasoline than most other industrialized countries. This is a major reason for ridiculously cheap gasoline permitting such enormous waste of fuel in this country. A higher gasoline surtax would generate additional tax money while lowering fuel consumption rates to alleviate the US trade deficit. A modest increase in car fuel efficiency can save more fuel than increased exploration for petroleum can. Clearly, the Bush administration is advocating increased fuel production because the alternative of fuel conservation would hamper economic growth. But accelerated depletion of domestic fuel resources ultimately will hasten the arrival of even greater dependence on OPEC oil. And it is not difficult to predict what that will do to fuel prices and to economic growth. Two years ago, President Bush wrote to his energy secretary: "We cannot and will not wait for the next energy crisis to force us to respond." The White House "National Energy Strategy" interpretation of of this statement means we will accelerate the arrival of the next energy crisis, rather than to simply wait for it to come. The philosophy seems to be that the faster we exhaust our finite oil resources, the more self-sufficient in energy we will be. It is the philosophy expressed by President Nixon's "P roject Independence," and it advocates the approach that created our oil supply problems. This philosophy needs to be rigorously challenged. To challenge it validly requires planning for the next decade and beyond instead of just for the next few years. Fuel conservation is the most readily available energy source the US has. It bailed us out of fuel problems in the early 1980s, changing the oil shortages of the 1970s to surpluses. We should not have abandoned that approach. It had just begun to work.

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