Black gold warning

The costly future of the world’s favorite resource.

Just after New Year’s, the world quietly marked what will be seen for decades as a very significant, if only symbolic, milestone: $100 per barrel oil. Just a few years ago, breaking the three-digit barrier would have been unthinkable – the going rate was about $20 a barrel in 2002. While the price has since dropped back into the high $80 range, it’s naïve to believe that the price for a finite resource like oil is going anywhere but up in the long term.

The issue deserves more attention from our presidential candidates. While the debate is often framed in terms of how much people pay at the pump, something voters surely identify with, the consequences are far more profound than that. Our country consumes more oil – about 25 percent produced in the world each year – than any other, and as such our nation’s economic health is more dependent on it than any other. When supplies are disturbed and the cost goes up, the price affects not only transportation and heating costs, but our food supply with its petroleum-derived fertilizers and pesticides, and the harvesting and delivery to grocery stores across the country. Every industry – construction, manufacturing, you name it – is in some way affected by these high energy prices and it’s a matter of national security that we move more quickly to push a national conservation agenda.

Congress recently required higher fuel economy standards. While the 40 percent increase from an average of 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon is a step in the right direction, it’s a step we’ve waited far too long to take, and with its implementation goal set for 2020, it’s a step we’re taking much too slowly.

In a strange way, President George W. Bush may – unintentionally of course – have helped put the issue into clearer contrast. In addition to the galloping demand from India and China, his misadventures in the Middle East have made the region more unstable and contributed greatly to the prices we’re now seeing. While in the short term the high prices hurt us, inaction in weaning ourselves off the oil would be far more dangerous in the long term. Let’s hope we take the $100 barrel as the warning sign it is.