"Drill, baby, drill!"
Never has a more bizarre chant taken over a national political convention and become the mantra of a presidential campaign.
The motto refers to the ongoing debate over whether the United States should pursue more domestic sources of petroleum off its coastlines and in Alaska. And in fact, such a plan recently passed Congress despite the objection of many Democrats who feel drilling for more oil is pointless. Some have even threatened to reverse that decision after the election.
All sides generally agree that the nation should wean itself off foreign sources of oil from nations whose leaders are either erratic or hostile to U.S. interests. The money sent overseas to support the oil industries of such countries, the argument goes, also supports regimes that fund terrorism and anti-Western sentiment.
Keep in mind, though, that petroleum is a commodity bought and sold on the free market by private companies, many based in the U.S. but with shareholders worldwide. To hear the ramblings of politicians, one would think our tax dollars are going directly into Hugo Chavez's pocket for barrels of oil. Indirectly, perhaps, but it's not that simple.
What's more, not every nation that provides oil to the U.S. is unfriendly. The leading exporter of oil to the U.S. is Canada, hardly the builder of madrassas, followed by Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela and Iraq. About two-thirds of the petroleum used by U.S. companies comes from abroad, but only a few of the top 15 nations on our export list are headed by unpleasant regimes.
Yet it remains in the nation's best interest to look inward for more of our energy. Doing so will only help our economy while keeping the whims of the international market at arm's length.
Those who claim that we "can't drill our way out of" energy dependence are right, to a point. We need more investment and research into alternative forms of energy that can ultimately wean us off carbon-burning fuels. But such a transition still may be years off, leaving a gap that can only be filled by short-term production of more fossil fuel.
The capricious nature of our oil supply is a direct result of supply and demand. As more nations become developed, people turn in their bicycles for Toyotas, stoking a greater thirst for oil to power their emerging economies. Like it or not, the world's economy runs on oil, for electricity, transportation and the production of plastics and other synthetics.
Yet the supply is finite, so it's long past time to begin planning for what comes next. Alternative forms of energy need to be implemented and brought online as they become practical and cost-effective.
Concerns that the extraction and use of oil can foul the environment are valid, despite technological advancements. That's why producing more oil in the short term should be just one small part of a comprehensive energy plan.
The policy adopted by the new administration should be as varied as the options before us. Yes, drill for more oil now. But also explore wind, solar, nuclear, hydropower and other forms of energy that can handle their share of the load in the near future. Do it all, not one path toward a solution but a many-pronged approach that can diversify energy usage as our need grows.
We can't put all of our eggs in any one basket, as we've learned. The oil supply often is in the hands of the wrong people, and eventually will be exhausted. But some of the alternatives don't always pan out as hoped, either.
Take ethanol, for instance. The move to biofuels was once seen as the way to cut off our oil addiction. Politicians heartily supported ethanol production, sparked in part by the presence of corn-growing Iowa at the start of the presidential campaign season. Companies began producing ethanol in larger quantities and mixing it with petroleum to stretch the gasoline supply.
Yet, as it turns out, it takes quite a bit of oil-produced energy to produce ethanol. And as more corn was turned into fuel instead of food, the price went up. That jacked up the cost of feed to livestock, raising meat and poultry prices. And third-world nations that rely on corn surpluses for food found themselves with empty pantries.
So it's clear that what seems like the be-all to our energy concerns today may not look so hot down the road. That's why we need to explore every alternative.
Every energy source seems to have a downside of some kind. Solar power is clean and efficient but expensive to produce in volume. Nuclear power is cheaper but creates concerns over potential accidents and waste disposal. Hydropower, wind and tides are viable only in certain areas. Natural gas and coal are more abundant than oil, but supplies, while considerable, are not inexhaustible.
The next president needs to keep all of these solutions on the table. The government should offer tax incentives to businesses and individuals that use alternative sources of energy and help fund research to make them all more feasible. And it should offer oil companies a deal: We'll let you drill if you'll stop lobbying against the energy sources that will eventually replace petroleum.
It's important to keep in mind that the solutions created to diversify and stabilize our energy production will come from companies with the foresight to look toward the future and the freedom to do so with government's blessing. Only by unleashing the nation's innovative drive and entrepreneurial spirit can the next president leave office with an energy supply more secure and varied than when he enters it.