The signs are everywhere -- in airports, shopping malls and sports stadiums -- exhorting us to "Support Our Troops In Saudi Arabia." The question neither posed nor answered is, "How?" Beyond moral support, there is little we stay-at-homes can do -- this time. But there is much that could be done to reduce our frightening national vulnerability to future upheavals in the Middle East. As Congress prepares to adjourn, there is no sign that it, or the rest of us, is prepared to open up this second front.
It may be that with the strain of dealing with Iraq and the budget deficit, it would have been unrealistic to expect action on energy security as well. In this optimistic view, energy issues will get their turn after deficit reduction, the election and the departure of Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
Don't count on it. Unless a war in the Gulf does major damage to the region's oil fields -- a very unlikely outcome -- oil prices are likely to subside back to the neighborhood of $20 per barrel following either a diplomatic or military resolution of the crisis. In that case, the record since Aug. 2 (and since 1973) suggests that America will return with a sigh of relief to the status quo ante, studiously ignoring the costs of its energy dependency.
Here's what's happened since the invasion. Encouraged by a president who clearly regards energy conservation with contempt and a hostile electorate, Congress has let pass its best opportunity to significantly raise the gasoline tax. Before the crisis, the price of gasoline had declined by 30 percent since 1950. Even with the 30-cent-per-gallon rise since the invasion, the real price of gasoline today is less than it has been since World War II. In Europe and Japan, gasoline taxes are close to $2 per gallon. Here, state and federal taxes are 25 to 30 cents, to which the deficit reduction package may add about a nickel.
One result of our low price is that motor vehicle use -- the least efficient way to move people or freight -- has skyrocketed, overwhelming large improvements in automobile fuel efficiency. Since 1973, oil use in the economy as a whole has declined by 2 percent, while in transportation it has grown by 20 percent.
Faced with heavy opposition from the administration and the automobile industry, which quickly flew in car dealers from every state to make the rounds on Capitol Hill, Congress also defeated an effort to raise new-car fuel efficiency standards by 40 percent over the coming decade. The measure would have saved more than 2 million barrels of oil a day. The good news was that the bill garnered 57 votes, a solid majority. The bad news was that 60 votes were needed to defeat a threatened filibuster in the Senate, and the legislation had little chance in the House, where Michigan Rep. John Dingell (D), powerful chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, looks after his most favored constituent.
Several other steps taken and not taken confirm that improving energy efficiency is still not taken seriously. At various times in the budget debate, broad-based energy taxes were considered. All were dropped. Energy Secretary James Watkins, asked for the administration's response to the Gulf crisis, suggested a federal advertising campaign encouraging motorists to drive more slowly and fully inflate their tires -- not a bad idea as far as it goes, but hardly a serious offering. With a surprise amendment the trucking industry was able to get the Ways and Means Committee to add a fuel tax on railroads equivalent to the proposed increase in motor vehicle fuels, despite the fact that railroads are vastly more energy-efficient than trucks. This latter step has since been partly undone and may yet, to the national benefit, be completely dropped.
The various deficit deals have all failed to include a small tax incentive that would continue tax-exempt treatment of the rebates utilities offer their customers for adopting energy efficiency measures. These rebates have proven to be a highly effective way to save both energy and money. On the other hand, an incentives package 10 times as large for oil and gas production has been a feature of most of the plans, even though it will have a minimal effect on oil supply. Domestic oil production has been declining for 20 years, in spite of massive exploration efforts when prices were high, for the simple reason that we have pumped most of the resource. There is little that can be done even to slow the downward trend.
All in all, it's a sorry picture. The public is unwilling to use the most promising energy policy instrument, the gasoline tax. Special interests easily defeat the national interest in Congress. And the administration, still engaged in its leisurely two-year stroll toward a national energy policy proposal, makes no contribution.
The United States does not have much flexibility in its energy supply choices. Coal use is constrained by air pollution and greenhouse warming concerns. Natural gas consumption can and should grow, but is limited by low price and regulatory tangles. For the near term, the market has ruled out nuclear power. Over the past decade, research and development funds for solar and other renewables were cut by 89 percent in real terms, diminishing their potential contribution.
In contrast, there are any number of opportunities to cut demand by raising energy efficiency, many of which promise substantial net savings to the economy. Three oil crises, it seems, have not been incentive enough to capture them. One wonders what will be.
The writer is vice president of the World Resources Institute.