It is hard to see anything positive about the offshore drilling debacle that has countless barrels of oil washing ashore in Louisiana, and perhaps soon in other Gulf states. The environmental and economic damage will come at an incalculably high price to a region-- and, for that matter, a country-- that can ill-afford either.
Those costs would only increase, possibly exponentially, in the event regulators responded to public concerns that further oil leaks might emanate from offshore platforms by cutting back on production in the Gulf of Mexico. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was at pains over the weekend to point out that 30% of the nation's energy supplies come from those wells, and there would be grave harm to the U.S. economy if there were any appreciable suspension of such flows.
Still, it would be foolish to ignore the possibility that the repercussions of the present crisis will be made much more far-reaching if it precipitates the sort of panic that took hold after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in 1979 or the oil leak off Santa Barbara a decade earlier.
At the risk of looking for a silver lining to this oily black cloud, there is a chance that some significant good could yet come from the popular revulsion at this nightmare. That would be the case if the nation were finally impelled to do the one practical, near-term and affordable thing that would, over time, dramatically reduce our dependence on oil: Wean the U.S. automotive fleet from its current, almost complete reliance on petroleum-derived gasoline.
Today, there are on our highways roughly six million cars known as Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs). These automobiles can burn either gas or ethanol or some combination of the two. FFVs can be engineered to run on methanol and butanol, as well - alcohol-based fuels that, like ethanol, can be manufactured in quantity from abundant domestic sources. The marginal additional cost of building such fuel choice into new cars is trivial, currently less than $100 per vehicle.
Importantly, several years ago, Ford, GM and Chrysler pledged to then-President George W. Bush that, by 2012, fully half of their new offerings would be FFVs. Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress which would ensure that the American manufacturers' foreign competitors must also meet this "Open Fuel Standard" and that eighty percent of all new cars sold in America by 2015 must be FFVs.
Frank Gaffney Jr. is the founder and president of the Center for Security Policy and author of War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World .
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