In this year's presidential campaign, waging the war on terror and balancing America's lopsided energy portfolio have rarely been mentioned in the same breath. They should be.
Claims that the invasion of Iraq amounted to a "war for oil" haven't been persuasive. Yet the nation's overdependence on the Middle East to supply our economic lifeblood has dominated and too often distorted U.S. foreign policy.
While oil from that troubled region remains relatively cheap and abundant for now, Americans frequently forget that it's a finite resource. The Oil Age has lasted more than a century and fueled America's phenomenal growth and prosperity. However, that era is coming to a close as easily obtainable supplies run out and production capacity plateaus.
Neither President Bush nor his Democratic rival, John Kerry, has shown the vision demanded by the critical problem of the nation's overdependence on fossil fuels. Each man should be outlining a plan to develop cheap alternative fuels within the next 10 to 20 years -- a proposal that could be thought of as the Apollo project of our time.
As oil supplies are depleted, competition for what's left will intensify, likely bringing dramatically higher prices around the world and at neighborhood gas stations. The recent price fluctuations of crude oil that sent shivers through energy markets -- and lightened motorists' wallets -- are just the beginning. Prices are likely to soar over the coming years, no matter who is elected president.
No one knows exactly when the day of reckoning will come, but a proven scientific model known as "Hubbert's Peak" strongly suggests that worldwide oil supplies and production capacity will follow an irreversible downward spiral. In the 1950s, geophysicist M. King Hubbert correctly predicted that domestic oil production would top out two decades later. As far as global supplies are concerned, optimists claim we have at least another 50 years before production capacity maxes out. Less sanguine estimates say that moment has already arrived or will arrive soon.
Either way, America cannot delay taking bold steps to change its overall energy policy. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), among others, has called for a 10-year initiative to begin breaking our fossil fuel addiction that would, by necessity, be as ambitious as the moon landing project.
The Bush administration has touted hydrogen fuel cells as one of the most promising energy sources of the future, especially for the transportation sector, which accounts for about 66 percent of the nation's oil demand. Hydrogen has its merits, but delivering it to consumers on a massive scale poses technological and environmental hurdles that may be difficult to overcome. Besides, we're already witnessing the downside of piling all our energy eggs in the same basket.
Our national approach must be broad-based and focus first on reducing domestic consumption and improving energy efficiency. Ultimately, it will also require sustained investment in developing renewable alternatives that produce less pollution than conventional fuels.
That's a tall order that won't come cheap. Alternative sources will undoubtedly require billions in subsidies over many years to help make them competitive with oil, natural gas and coal. Fortunately, several technologies that seemed out of this world just a few decades ago look far more promising today.
Solar energy that can be harvested by advanced photovoltaic cells has increased in efficiency and popularity. Wind energy and biomass fuels are also showing promise. And last week, British engineers successfully tested a device that uses the heaving motion of the oceans to drive turbines that generated enough electricity to power 500 homes. The U.S. Department of Energy is funding a similar, though smaller, demonstration project off the coast of California.
Other developed nations are setting impressive goals for adopting alternative energy sources that hold the greatest potential. Germany, for example, plans to generate 20 percent of its power from renewable energy sources by 2020.
The United States has no such targets, instead leaving it up to individual states. In November, Colorado voters will decide whether 10 percent of the state's energy should come from renewable sources by 2015.
But energy policy for coming generations will require national leadership, not the piecemeal approaches that Congress and the Bush administration have offered up so far. Although terrorism has rightly taken center stage in the presidential race, the next occupant of the White House must aggressively promote alternatives to prepare us for the energy crisis waiting menacingly in the wings. Indeed, given our dependence on Middle East petroleum, it's easy to see that the war on terror and energy needs are linked.