There is no quick fix for high prices at the gas pump. But if Americans start now, progress can be made in making the nation less dependent on foreign oil in the years ahead.
Drilling for oil and natural gas offshore and in other environmentally sensitive areas now is being touted by some as the way to bring oil prices down. While more domestic exploration might tweak oil prices in the short run, it would do nothing to encourage the development of more sustainable energy alternatives to petroleum.
Drilling offshore and in areas such as the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve might affect oil prices immediately, but only because it could prompt oil speculators to increase supplies and drop prices to offset a potential future rise in U.S. oil production. But, even if royalties to new leases are devoted to developing alternative energy sources, the impact of more domestic exploration is likely to be small.
Ironically, the only thing that makes deep-water exploration for oil and gas economically feasible is the high price of oil. Offshore drilling entails an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars just to find a productive site. Once oil is discovered, offshore rigs used to bring it to the surface cost $1 billion or more. And it would take years before the first barrel of oil was produced.
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The Interior Department estimates that oil reserves off the U.S. coast in areas where production now is barred hold only about 19 billion barrels of oil. That is enough to cover U.S. consumption for 2.5 years.
Again, though, it would take years to find and recover those reserves, and they would not be available all at once. In the meantime, we still would be paying $4 a gallon a the gas pump.
And we can't forget that any offshore exploration carries the risk of oil spills that could foul our beaches. Coastal states such as South Carolina and Florida would be jeopardizing their top industry -- tourism -- for the nominal rewards of offshore oil royalties.
Some say that if exploration had been allowed years ago offshore and in ANWR, we would be enjoying the fruits of that effort now. But the same could be said for a sensible energy policy.
If President Bush had pressed when he first took office for policies to curb consumption, encourage development of alternative energy sources and fund mass transit, we might be making inroads now. Instead, the Bush energy policy, beyond calling for more oil exploration, has been nonexistent.
In fact, the administration has stood in the way of conservation efforts such as increasing mileage standards for cars, funding for mass transportation and reducing carbon emissions. Bush seems to have recognized the problem only recently, a few months before he leaves office.
Even at $4 a gallon, Americans are paying far less for gasoline than Europeans have been paying for years. And as demand from wakening giants such as China and India increases, prices will continue to rise.
And who reaps the profits? Oil-rich nations such as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela -- hardly our closest allies.
The United States -- and its next president -- need to begin thinking long term. There is no single solution to the economic and environmental problems posed by reliance on oil for energy.
We need renewable fuel alternatives, including biofuels. We need to begin a program to develop an electric car -- and the necessary recharging stations -- akin to the Apollo program of the 1960s. We need to encourage new, cleaner energy sources, including wind, solar, perhaps liquefied coal and probably nuclear. And we need more mass transportation, with passenger trains factored in as part of growth and land-use planning.
We can't drill our way out of this problem. In fact, anything that delays efforts to reduce our unsustainable energy consump-tion makes the problem worse.
Anyone who says offshore drilling is the remedy for high gas prices is selling us a bill of goods.