U.S. Must Get Head out of Sand on Oil Dependency

Congressional committees hold thousands of hearings during any given year. Many are extremely timely and significant; however, unless some governmental or industry official is being dragged over the coals for malfeasance or corruption or unless some sports figure or movie star is testifying, the hearings don’t usually wind up on page one or on the evening television news. And that’s too bad.

The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on March 22 held a half-day public hearing on “Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Oil Dependence.” Given the challenges that our nation faces in the Middle East and our continued military presence in Iraq, few things could be more timely. The hearing was hardly noticed by the mainstream media.

Just a little more than a year ago, President Bush pledged to move our nation away from an oil-dependent economy. Like so many other Bush pronouncements, it turned out to be a statement made for political expediency with no substance or commitment behind it.

Now the new Democratic Congress is appropriately raising the issue of energy dependence and the critical need to free us from the financial and security risks of an oil-base economy. We will see over the coming months whether Democrats in Congress are willing to call for the sacrifices and changes that industry and individual Americans must make to actually solve the problem.

The House Committee heard from two extraordinary witnesses – Daniel Yergin, author of the definitive history of the oil industry, “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power,” and former CIA Director John Deutch, co-chair of a recent Council on Foreign Relations task force report on “The National Security Consequences of U.S. Oil Dependence.”

Foreign Affairs Committee Chair U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., set the tone in his opening remarks. He noted, “With 5 percent of the world’s population, we are using fully one-quarter of the oil consumed on this planet. Worse yet, the bulk of the stuff is under the soil of hostile or despotic states, and to get hold of it we are making compromises that undermine our foreign policy.”

He added, “more than 70 percent of the global oil reserves are controlled by countries with which the United States has tenuous and troubled relations, such as Venezuela, Russia and Saudi Arabia. ... Our insatiable quest for more and more [oil] has got to come to an end. It is a matter not only of financial stability and environmental imperative, but it also goes to the core of our national security policy.”

Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, pointed out that we import 60 percent of the oil we use and that over the next 25 years world oil consumption could increase by 45 percent with over half of the future growth in world oil demand taking place in Asia.

He echoed Lantos’ concerns by noting that “a good part of the growth in world energy supply after 2010 will occur in countries going through transitions or subject to turbulence.”

Yergin focused particularly on our future bilateral relationship with China, which is in the process of dramatically increasing its oil consumption because of economic growth. Yergin noted that we could well have differences with China on such key foreign policy issues as Iran’s nuclear program and urged that we enter into a serious dialogue with China about how to fulfill its growing appetite for oil.

He added, “There is much talk of a clash between the United States and China over oil. But there is nothing inevitable about it. Commercial competition need not turn into national rivalry.”

Deutch was very direct in his comments. He said, “Domestic and foreign energy policy are linked; however, the U.S. policy-making apparatus typically does not take this linkage into account.”

Deutch recommended that the United States take a number of steps to decrease its reliance on imported oil. These include measures to reduce demand such as a $1-per-gallon gas tax and more stringent automobile fuel efficiency (CAFÉ) standards.

He also recommended “vastly more research, development and demonstration of new technologies” such as cellulosic biofuels (ethanol) and greater reliance on nuclear energy. Additionally, he urged more domestic exploration such as additional drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in Alaska.

Most of this is tough medicine and will be very controversial in Congress; however, sticking our head in the sand and continuing to place us and our European allies in a vulnerable position because of reliance on oil from volatile states in the Middle East, enemies of the U.S. such as Iran and Venezuela and a political rival such as Russia, makes very little sense.

When you add the issue of global warming to the foreign policy implications or importing large quantities of oil, there really is an imperative for Congress to act on national energy policy.

I don’t mean to minimize how hard it is to reach a consensus on energy policy; however, Congress has very little choice but to make a real effort. Let’s hope they can get something of consequence done sooner rather than later.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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