America's Achilles' Heel
David Harris, AJC Executive Director
April 3, 2011
It's become a bad joke.
Ever since 1973, when AOPEC first imposed a crippling oil boycott, one president after another has promised to wean us off our dependence on unstable sources of oil.
With great solemnity, our leaders have spoken of the dangers of our vulnerability, while pledging to usher in a new energy era.
Yet, nearly four decades after the first oil shock, startlingly, our dependence on imported oil has jumped from one-third of total consumption to nearly two-thirds.
So much for pledges and promises.
Meanwhile, take a country like Brazil, nearly the size of our own.
In 1973, it imported approximately 80 percent of its oil needs. Today, by contrast, the country is self-sufficient.
The difference between the United States and Brazil? Above all, national will.
Brazil's leaders didn't just talk up a good game. They acted with determination.
They shifted vehicles to flex fuel, drawing on domestically-grown sugar cane to produce ethanol. They focused on renewable energy sources and made great strides. They explored for offshore oil and found vast deposits. The results speak for themselves.
How tragic that we haven't quite followed suit!
Take sugar-based ethanol as one telling example of the mess we're in. It's been tough to import for our vehicles. Why? Thanks to corn-growing states fearful of the competition, we've put in place high tariffs that make it prohibitively expensive to import from Brazil. That leaves us with corn-based ethanol, whose energy yield is approximately one-seventh - yes, one-seventh - of its sugar-based counterpart.
We've had one chance after another to get serious, but to no avail.
Think back to President Jimmy Carter's efforts to set an example of energy efficiency in the White House.
Rather than emulate him, many Americans derided the chief executive. How dare we Americans be asked to drive less, drive slower, drive smaller, stay cooler in winter, or warmer in summer! Aren't these all violations of our birthright?
Perhaps our best chance to get off the dime came right after 9/11.
President Bush had the American people in the palm of his hand. He could have asked for just about anything he billed as serving America's vital interests, and he would have gotten it.
At AJC, we urged the White House to seize the moment. We even had the chutzpah to draft a speech we hoped the president might deliver on the need to get serious - and fast - on energy security, and shared it with top White House advisers. But, in the end, the president didn't seize the moment and, within a short time, we were back to the all-too-familiar pattern of partisan and interest-group squabbling when it comes to energy.
The result is that today we're on tenterhooks as Middle East crises unfold one after another, fearful of where the oil will come from, how much more prices will rise, and whether more costly oil will damage the chances for a sustained economic recovery.
A few days ago, President Obama set forth, in a major address, an ambitious goal of strengthening our energy security.
Will it turn out any differently this time than before?
It's tempting to be cynical and list all the reasons why it just won't happen, not today, not tomorrow.
But I refuse to believe that the American people would rather continue to live with the untenable status quo.
Why should Brazil be able to achieve energy security and not us?
Why should we have to shudder every time another oil-exporting nation experiences instability, civil war, or terrorist attacks against energy infrastructure?
Why should we continue to watch as literally hundreds of billions of petrodollars make their way into the coffers of nations like Chavez's Venezuela and Qaddafi's Libya, hardly our friends?
Aren't we aware that China, seeing the future with 20/20 foresight, has announced its determination to be the leading industrial innovator of the coming post-oil economy? What that would mean, if we don't succeed in looking beyond the present, is still more imports from China rather than new opportunities for U.S. exports - and the jobs here they create.
Is it a secret that there are European cars on the roads - made for the European market - that today get 50 percent better mileage than the Toyota Prius? Why not in the U.S.? And why not flex-fuel vehicles here, using what should be competitively-priced, sugar-based ethanol, as there are throughout Brazil?
And while states from Wisconsin to Florida are turning down the chance to build high-speed trains with the help of federal funds, the rest of the world is going in the opposite direction. The state-of-the-art, energy-efficient trains across much of Europe and parts of Asia - exceptionally comfortable, convenient, and smooth - make Amtrak's Acela look like the little engine that couldn't.
So I say bravo to President Obama's vision, as well as to those of his predecessors in the White House.
But this time to make it work, really work, also requires the American people, us, to make energy security our priority and say so resoundingly.
It won't be easy, and, given the magnitude of the challenge, it can't happen overnight. All around, it will take persistence and perseverance, and require investment and innovation on many fronts, as there's no single magic bullet. It will require unusual political courage and constancy. And each of us may need to consider modest adjustments in the choices we make.
But always, at every step, through thick and thin, we should keep our eye on the tantalizing prize - an America far stronger, more secure, and more prosperous than today.
Others have done it. So, surely, can a mobilized America.
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