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We Must Break Our Dependence on Oil

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

T. Boone Pickens is one of America's biggest independent oil producers, so he could be forgiven if he simply chose to sit back and pile up his profits. But the Texas entrepreneur is convinced that America must break its dependence on oil as a major source of energy, and has announced that over the next few weeks he is going to outline in the major media a plan for doing exactly that. He is right on the money, and I am going to listen carefully to what he has to say.

There is no doubt that this country is deeply hooked on oil. It is, after all, the source of the gasoline on which America's cars and trucks run, and a national economy in which oil didn't play a major role is virtually inconceivable. But we are deep in a dilemma in which the tail is, for all practical purposes, wagging the dog. Our foreign policy, in particular, is bent out of shape by our desperate need to keep Middle Eastern oil flowing to us and to our European allies.

Those last three words deserve special emphasis. The United States itself could survive on its own oil resources and those of dependable allies in Latin America and elsewhere. But the friendly nations of Europe would grind to a halt in a matter of weeks if their supply of Middle Eastern oil was cut off, and the United States simply couldn't afford such a disaster, either economically or militarily. For all practical purposes, therefore, we are as dependent on Middle Eastern oil as they are.

A solution to the problem is hard to come by. Shaking off our dependence on oil will involve huge technological changes, even if (which is unclear) these are theoretically possible. Just as a practical matter, are the American people ready to forsake their neighborhood gas pump and shell out the money necessary to build and buy cars fueled by solar power or some even more exotic form of energy?

It may well take a war, or some other disaster that interrupts foreign oil supplies, to force the leading nations of the West to get serious about replacing precarious sources of oil with forms of energy under their own dependable control. Democracies are notoriously disinclined to undergo painful privations until it is all but too late.

Both major presidential candidates have made ending our dependence on oil a major plank in their platforms. But the means of doing so tends, in both cases, to be uncomfortably hazy. Obviously, no politician wants to tell the voters that he will impose policies that are unarguably going to be painful. But I have a hunch that the future may belong to that political leader -- either one of the current candidates, or someone who may manifest himself in the near future -- who has the courage to stake his career on telling the American people the truth and calling on them to end our dependence on oil while there is still time.

Winston Churchill was able to summon the British people to make heroic sacrifices in World War II, when the survival of the nation clearly depended on beating Hitler. The oil crisis doesn't have the fearsome lineaments of Hitler, but it is every bit as serious a threat, and it is not beyond possibility that an eloquent leader could make the peoples of the major Western nations realize this and react accordingly.

It is, after all, simply a matter of accepting certain temporary privations -- primarily, giving up our total dependence on gas-guzzling cars -- in the interest of shifting to other forms of energy that are more reliable. Oil would not be banished as a source of energy; it would simply become less overwhelmingly dominant.

If we refuse to do this, we will simply become ever more at the mercy of foreign despots to whom we are already paying hundreds of billions of dollars every year for oil that, by sheer chance, happens to lie under their hot and sandy domains. They could bring the West to its knees in a matter of months if they chose to. They haven't, yet, because it's more profitable not to. But that is no basis for a sane American foreign policy.

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