In his State of the Union address last week, President Bush took a bold step by admitting that America is addicted to oil. Although such an announcement is by no means surprising, we should applaud our national leader for his willingness to acknowledge an ever-increasing problem in America. Honesty, after all, is the first step in recovering from any addiction. What remains to be seen is whether this proclamation will result in substantive action, or whether it is mere rhetoric.
Three years ago, President Bush pointed out the degenerate nature of addiction in a similar address, when he asserted that “addiction crowds out friendship, ambition, moral conviction and reduces all the richness of life to a single destructive desire.” Although the President was referring specifically to substance abuse, perhaps it is time we started treating America’s oil addiction as if it were a drug problem. Our thirst for petroleum is insatiable, and we will do almost anything — from dropping bombs to drilling pristine wildlife — to procure it.
To combat our oil dependence, the President proposed a 22 percent increase in research and development funding at the Department of Energy. After making this announcement in the State of the Union address, President Bush embarked on a three-day campaign to promote alternative sources of energy. For the Bush administration, America’s salvation comes in the form of new technology: hydrogen fuel cells and ethanol derived from corn, wood chips and switch grass. If all goes according to plan, American consumers will eventually see the benefits of cleaner fuels, and the market will lead our troubled ship into safer waters.
The problem with this scenario is that America’s oil addiction is an overwhelmingly powerful force. It cannot be innovated away with new technology, just as the heroin problem can never be fully solved with methadone clinics or clean needle exchanges. To successfully kick our oil habit, innovation must be coupled with government regulation, which can come in the form of stricter fuel efficiency standards for automobile manufacturers or higher gasoline taxes. These efforts, in tandem with new technologies, could do a great deal to curb American dependence on oil.
If we really believe that America’s oil habit is analogous to a drug addiction, then such regulations should not be difficult to accept. Indeed, government regulations already exist for substances such as tobacco and alcohol, and both these items have been taxed heavily with public approval. A higher gasoline tax would do much to convince consumers to purchase vehicles with higher fuel efficiency. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that increasing average fuel economy by three miles per gallon would save more than 1 million barrels of oil per day, which is considerably more than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would yield in its peak year of production. Unfortunately, recent attempts to pass higher fuel efficiency standards have failed to garner enough votes for passage.
Treating the American oil addiction will take time. Change will be incremental at best, which might be difficult for strict environmentalists to accept. Even as we move towards alternative energy sources and more efficient vehicles, America will undoubtedly relapse into old habits and drill in times of crisis. The current political climate offers a glimpse of such a scenario, as escalating domestic gas prices and fears of Middle East instability have led to renewed calls for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
It is here — in the battle over drilling in ANWR — where the message of higher fuel efficiency risks being lost. A considerable degree of public attention has focused on drilling in the Arctic territory, which comes as no surprise given the flamboyant features of the debate: heated filibusters, emotional exchanges and Senators donning Incredible Hulk apparel. Although opposing Arctic drilling is a worthy endeavor, the debate may serve as a political distraction from the equally important goal of higher fuel efficiency standards. To keep attention focused on this objective, legislators might do well to attach fuel efficiency amendments to new drilling proposals.
The ANWR debate has already diverted public attention away from other significant issues, such as equally egregious drilling proposals. The Department of the Interior, for example, approved the Lake Teshekpuk region of Alaska for oil development only weeks after a move to attach ANWR drilling to a defense appropriations bill was defeated in the Senate. The Lake Teshekpuk region had been under federal protection since the Reagan administration, and the area has been regarded by many to be as ecologically significant as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In the same week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was revising its fuel efficiency calculations to better reflect real-world automobile performance. Existing calculations had been under heavy criticism from environmentalists, who claimed the ratings reflected laboratory performance and therefore overestimated automobile efficiency. The synchronized timing of these announcements — of drilling at Lake Teshekpuk and the revised fuel efficiency ratings — provides a fitting end to our extended metaphor. President Bush has conceded that America is addicted to oil. Now the environmental lobby has only to realize that the recovery process will be long and difficult. No matter the amount of innovation and regulation, America will continue to drill pristine wildlife in the near future.
Howard Kim is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.