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America Needs an Oil Change

When 2 million Allied troops liberated Europe in World War II, on a daily basis they consumed just a quarter of the fuel their soldier successors used each day in Desert Storm.  As America marches into this new conflict, our Department of Defense accounts for 80% of all government fuel use – half of it imported from the very region where we’re fighting.  Yet our legislators still refuse to prioritize energy policy as a component of national security.

Back in August, the House passed a comprehensive energy plan that included a provision to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).  The package has since bogged down in a Senate committee where Interior Secretary Gale Norton says the Administration has the votes to pass it to the floor, but Senate Majority Leader Daschle refuses to schedule debate.

The Energy Information Administration estimates that 152 billion barrels of recoverable oil lie beneath our own land, but that resource has been declared off-limits.  Of the 19 million acres under federal protection in the ANWR, just 2,000 acres -- 0.00003% of Alaska’s vast land mass – would be open for drilling, enough to cut our OPEC imports by one-third. Yet this “pristine wilderness” of the liberal imagination has become a shibboleth for environmental commitment. More adventurers will scale Everest this year than will visit the refuge, and even the Washington Post calls it "one of the bleakest, most remote places on earth.” But Senators loath to inconvenience a few caribou are keeping the reservoir locked.

Absent a steady domestic supply, we’ve been left to the mercy of overseas suppliers – and with disastrous results.  In 1981, the U.S. had 4,500 active rotary drilling rigs.  Two decades later, that number has plummeted to just 760 while demand has skyrocketed.  The Department of Energy estimates that crude consumption alone will increase more than 30% by 2020, but our suppliers can’t keep pace.  As long as the OPEC cartel retains the ability to play dice with the price of oil, domestic producers can’t afford exploration costs.  Without a price floor, we remain hostage to the caprice of foreign suppliers and deal death to domestic industry.

We’ve already spilled American blood to ensure a Mid-East oil supply.  Now we find that pipeline imperiled again.  Though Persian Gulf suppliers have, for their own economic protection, taken pains to compartmentalize political action and oil issues, the outcome of this conflict remains uncertain.  Should it bleed past Afghanistan’s borders, we face ominous possibilities.  Saudi instability?  Saddam with nothing left to lose?  Diverted freighters?  Breaks in the pipeline?  An Arab-Israeli war?  Rather than continuing to hold American security captive to a region in turmoil, we should immediately negotiate multiple pipelines from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia as well as the Persian Gulf thus  decreasing dependence and minimizing security commitments.

The more America relies on foreign regimes for the necessities of daily life, the greater our vulnerability – and that much more so when the engines of war are running at full throttle.  Just as Middle Eastern nations call oil the “blood of the earth,” so too for us.  No resource is more precious to American industry, security, and liberty.  We have within reach the resources to increase domestic supply and the leverage of the world’s largest market to force compliance from price-fixers. We need only use them.  Our need has never been greater;  neither has our exposure.

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