Akst: We already have the solution to a new oil crisis
Back in 1973, the year of the Arab oil embargo, the United States imported 28 percent of its oil.
This year the figure is likely to be 42 percent. And that represents progress; in 2005 we imported more than 60 percent.
For those who can't remember the oil embargo arising from the Yom Kippur War, or the Iranian energy crisis of 1979, let me assure you, they weren't fun. You have no idea how dependent you are on gasoline for your car until you can't get any.
A lot has changed since then; the U.S. economy is vastly more energy-efficient, partly because the role of manufacturing, which is energy intensive, is so diminished. Domestic oil production has been booming thanks to new technology. We've discovered vast new domestic reserves of natural gas. We have 80 days of oil imports salted away in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries no longer controls the world's supply of oil.
Yet one thing hasn't changed: turmoil in the Middle East, a region that, with North Africa, accounts for more than a third of the world's oil supply. In recent days we've seen the region erupt in violent mass hysteria over an idiotic video on the Internet. Is it really so far-fetched that oil prices, already high, could rise a lot more as a result, pushing already shaky economies like ours back into recession? Might we even see a reprise of the gas lines some of us remember from the 1970s? What if Israel carries out its repeated warnings that it might launch an attack to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program?
And can Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, remain insulated from the upheavals of the Arab Spring? Future rulers will want to sell its oil. But it's not hard to imagine severe supply disruptions.
If all this strikes you as worrisome, then you won't mind if I use a word that's become all but taboo in our culture.
That word is: conservation.
There, it's out. I wouldn't be surprised if, reading it in black and white, frenzied SUV owners offended by the term formed a torch-bearing mob to search for its utterer.
The torches, of course, would run on fossil fuel, and do their part to make America vulnerable to unrest in the Middle East while heating up the planet so that rising sea levels someday swallow up much of Long Island.
Some people worry about all this, yet few take much action. But indifference can't change circumstances, which suggest that there's no sensible alternative to more effective conservation measures as well as new sources of clean energy.
Nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases, and I advocate more of it. But it has its risks, and after the Fukushima disaster in Japan I doubt it has a great future in this country. We can always ramp up domestic production of oil and gas, but that would contribute to global warming just as much as imports -- maybe more, if we increase our reliance on coal.
Perhaps a cataclysm in the Middle East is what it will take to help us find the political will to change. As things stand, there is little public appetite for the kind of higher energy taxes that can alter behavior (to say nothing of reducing federal deficits). Producers of carbon-based fuels, meanwhile, are spending heavily to prevent the re-election of President Barack Obama, who hasn't done a great deal (beyond higher fuel economy standards for cars) to wean us off fossil fuels anyway. Nor could he, in the current political environment.
People complain about the cost of alternatives to fossil fuel, yet fail to factor in the high cost of the status quo. What a tragedy if the nation that put a man on the moon and invented the Internet didn't have the right stuff to save itself from oil.Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.