It's the oil, stupid


Mark Follman
October 17, 2004 9:15PM (UTC)

Neither John Kerry nor President Bush has done much serious campaigning when it comes to the nation's energy dependence. Though America's staggering oil consumption continues to expand, discussion of energy policy has only trickled into the candidates' campaign platforms this election season. It barely leaked into the three presidential debates: A couple of times Kerry and Bush each mentioned that they had an "energy plan" to ween the U.S. off foreign oil, and that was that.

John Cassidy of the New Yorker elucidates why both candidates have avoided drilling beneath the platitudes. "Moving beyond rhetoric and actually trying to make America less reliant on foreign oil involves confronting powerful commercial interests, solving difficult technological problems, and convincing the American public that cheap fuel is not a birthright," Cassidy writes. He goes on to outline why energy policy should in fact be a burning issue in this campaign.

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"According to the oil company BPs 'Statistical Review of World Energy,' a recognized authority on these matters, at the end of 2003 the United States possessed thirty-one billion barrels of proven reserves... if the United States were forced to rely on its own resources, it would run out of oil in four years and three months. This calculation takes into account the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which President Ford created in 1975, and which is stored at a number of sites in Texas and Louisiana. At full capacity, the reserve contains about seven hundred million barrels of oil -- enough to keep the economy going for a few months during an emergency, such as the outbreak of a war that would cut the supply lines to the Middle East, but not nearly enough to keep gasoline prices low for a more extended period, which is what some politicians have suggested."

President Bush has primarily framed the Iraq war in terms of battling terrorism and spreading democracy globally, and in criticisms of the war, John Kerry has essentially followed suit. But make no mistake. Such talk about security and stability is fundamentally linked with securing a long-term supply of oil to continue feeding America's enormous appetite.

"In 1999, when [Vice President] Cheney was still at Halliburton," the article continues, "he gave a speech at Londons Institute of Petroleum in which he pointed out that by 2010 the world would probably need another fifty million barrels of oil a day. 'So where is the oil going to come from?' Cheney asked. 'While many regions of the world offer great oil opportunities, the Middle East, with two-thirds of the worlds oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.'"

(Halliburton conspiracy mongers take note: Cassidy also shows how the U.S. paradigm for using military might to secure Gulf oil traces back as far as Jimmy Carter.)

A sign of just how daunting the problem is, Cassidy's otherwise lucid discussion starts to fall apart with respect to near-term policy solutions. One expert suggests sticking to a policy of "benign protection" for Middle East supplies based on the threat of U.S. intervention (probably a bit late for that), while Cassidy himself agrees, "from an economic vantage point, a strategy based on Realpolitik makes sense." (Whatever that means.)

But as Cassidy points out, alternative energy solutions to our chronic oil addiction, such as hybrid cars, hydrogen, or a hefty gas tax, all pretty much remain political pipe dreams without a popular mandate to put them in place.

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It may take $8-per-gallon gas first, but eventually Americans are going to have to face the fact that the nation's current energy paradigm has us on a one-way road. The destination at its end may already be in view.


Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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