TCS Daily

Independent Streak

By Brock Yates - February 19, 2002 12:00 AM

Will Rogers once admitted, "All I know is what I read in the papers." Add my mea culpa to ol' Will's. Each day I digest a barrage of blather issuing from various Washington eminences that (1) we must reduce our "dependence on foreign oil" and (2) eliminate the threat of global warming. Excellent ideas, on paper at least, both of which involve de-fanging the motor vehicle through the radical increases in CAFE standards and a Manhattan-Project-style campaign to excise the hated internal-combustion engine from the roads forever.

I am troubled by the utter simplicity of these pontifications. Example: This dependence on foreign oil business is confusing. Yes, we import vast quantities of the black stuff from the Middle East. But so does Japan, Germany, France and all the other leading industrial and economic powers. Is this a form of blackmail or a logical global trading system that works?

What does energy independence do for us, other than to create a cozy feeling of security? Great Britain went nuts with offshore drilling in the last half of the 20th Century to loosen its Middle Eastern shackles and I see no indications that it triggered a massive economic revival. Japan's economy is faltering, but it has little to do with their near 100% importation of foreign oil -- something they have done since their industrialization in the early 1900's. And by the way, recall that they fought like maniacs in WW II against the Allies who were awash in the stuff.

So, too, for the Germans in that terrible war, who struggled quite effectively for years after their oil supply was limited to Rumania's much-bombed Ploesti fields.

That was, of course, wartime, when nations dig deep to improvise. And what of the United States in a major war? Does anybody seriously believe that this nation would not obtain oil, even if it meant the annexation of fields in nations like Mexico and Venezuela or even Saudi Arabia? War is the ultimate hardball and I have no doubt that we would obtain the necessary oil regardless of the means (while at the same time developing alternate sources in a frantic atmosphere of technological creativity that only wars create.)

Let's hope we never reach a crisis state such as wartime to seek radical solutions, but even as the world careens from one crisis to the next, are we in mortal danger of losing our sources of petroleum to the mullahs of the Middle East? OPEC tried twice in the 1970's to blackmail the West. Twice it failed. Is there any possibility of a repeat attempt? Perhaps, presuming Russia, Norway and other potentially strong sources of petroleum join up, which is highly unlikely. The immediate challenges to OPEC are not bringing the West to its knees but rather to keep its shaky membership in line and to hold the price somewhere around 20 bucks a barrel. Neither is exactly an example of muscle flexing on the part of the Organization. Moreover, if it shuts off the spigots to the West, where is its next market? Chad? Uganda? The Fiji Islands? Iceland? Living like a Saudi Sheik is expensive. Bills have to be paid. In dollars.

Having stumbled on long division during my feckless academic career, I am baffled about the economics of this entire issue. If our dilemma with oil is so serious, why is our economy so strong (even in this nettlesome recession)?

Do the economic benefits of our incredibly mobile and flexible business climate far outweigh the costs of oil importation? Has anybody bothered to compare the cost/benefit ratios of our mobility through transportation of all kinds against the outflow of dollars for oil?

We have made massive advances cleaning up the atmosphere with more to come. The air is getting cleaner by the day, despite the Cassandras on the left where Global Warming is a faith, not a fact. There is no viable substitute for the internal-combustion engine in sight, despite the rosy chatter about fuel cells. Diesels, if the EPA would get real about its emissions regulations, could elevate fuel mileage in the automobiles by 20% overnight, as is the case in Germany where, by the way, the Green movement started.

We have a leviathan economy, the strongest in the history of mankind, based principally on free movement of all kinds -- social, economic and material. To interfere with that mobility in any way, especially in terms of how goods, services and people move quickly around the nation, can have a devastating impact on our economy.

To permit a collection of pols and bureaucrats in Washington to jiggle with this incredible free-market system in the name of a convenient buzz phrase like "energy independence" can produce unintended consequences of the worst kind. Will Rogers once also noted, "The business of government is to keep government out of business -- that is, unless business needs government aid." In this particular issue the "need" exists only in the fevered brains of ambitious pols.

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