It is hard to see anything positive about the offshore drilling debacle that has sent 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 that regulators responded to public concerns that additional oil leaks might emanate from offshore platforms by cutting back on production in the Gulf of Mexico.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took pains during the weekend to point out that 30 percent of the nation's energy supplies come from those wells, and there would be grave harm to the U.S. economy if such flows were suspended appreciably.
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 come from the popular revulsion at this nightmare. That would be the case if the nation finally were 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, roughly 6 million cars known as flexible fuel vehicles (FFV) are on our highways. 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: less than $100 a vehicle.
Importantly, several years ago, Ford, GM, and Chrysler pledged to then-President George W. Bush that fully half of their new offerings would be FFVs by 2012. Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress that would ensure that the American manufacturers' foreign competitors also must meet this "open fuel standard" and that 80 percent of all new cars sold in America by 2015 must be FFVs.
If any further reinforcement were needed to secure the swift adoption of the open fuel standard, it can be found in two other events that recently underscored why it is not simply desirable, but an absolute necessity, that we diversify the fuel supply for the sector of our economy most dependent on oil:
1. The official Saudi press agency reported at the end of March that the kingdom had taken 113 al-Qaida terrorists into custody. They were said to have made up two distinct suicide bomber cells that were "in the initial stages of preparing an attack on oil and security facilities in the Eastern Province," the heart of Saudi Arabia's petroleum industry. This is not the first such attempted attack and almost certainly will not be the last.
2. In late April, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard undertook three days of exercises in the Strait of Hormuz. "The exercises featured dozens of speedboats attacking target ships with rockets and newly built torpedoes," according to the Jamestown Foundation. These sorts of drills are clearly intended to lend credence to Tehran's threats to cut off the flow of oil through and out of the Persian Gulf.
In the event that either of these menaces eventuates, a serious disruption in the flow of oil to the United States and other Western consumers would be unavoidable. Especially if combined with pressure to cut back on the exploitation of America's off-shore energy resources, the effect could be sharply increased prices for gas and possibly sustained shortages of supply.
Under those circumstances, would we hesitate to make the fullest possible use of available technologies, particularly highly cost-effective ones, to tap our nation's vast potential for alcohol-based fuels and, thereby, to enable "fuel choice" to the consumer? Not bloody likely.
Such a step would have the added benefit of breaking the back of the monopoly enjoyed by the OPEC oil cartel, many of whose members wish us ill. Continuing to transfer our national wealth to such countries is insanely reckless. By adopting the open fuel standard here, moreover, it is likely that cars that meet it will be sold internationally, as well. As a result, as many as 120 countries around the world would be able to manufacture their own fuels, further eviscerating OPEC's stranglehold on energy supplies.
Perhaps even in such extremity, a few holdouts still would cavil against the government imposing a "mandate" in the form of an open fuel standard — despite its being one that would create competition where none exists today.
As Robert Zubrin, author of the brilliant blueprint called “Energy Victory,” has noted, the mandate for digital televisions was adopted without such histrionics. It is vastly more important that we provide for our energy security than for the quality of our television signals. And, as the BP blowout makes absolutely clear, it is past time that we do so.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy, a columnist for The Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program "Secure Freedom Radio" heard at 9 p.m. weekdays on WTNT 570 AM in Washington.
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