Increased U.S. oil production and vehicle mileage could reduce the...

Increased U.S. oil production and vehicle mileage could reduce the need for imported petroleum and put downward pressure on gasoline prices. An increased gasoline tax could help rebuild roads and bridges. (March 17, 2011) Credit: Bloomberg

With the region's post-Sandy gasoline pangs finally in the rearview mirror, there's good news about the nation's energy future -- and an opportunity that should be seized.

The United States is projected to become the world's largest oil producer by 2020, temporarily surpassing Saudi Arabia, thanks to technologies unlocking light oil and shale gas resources. That's according to the International Energy Agency, an autonomous agency created after the 1973 oil crisis to promote energy security for its 28 member nations, including the United States.

At the same time, the United States will start to see the benefit of new auto fuel-efficiency measures, so oil imports -- now 20 percent of U.S. consumption -- should drop to the point that around 2035 the nation could become virtually self-sufficient in energy, according to the IEA's world energy outlook released last week.

"North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world, yet the potential also exists for a similarly transformative shift in global energy efficiency," said Maria van der Hoeven, IEA executive director.

Unpredictable events in the world could darken that bright projection. But the possibility of self-sufficiency is bracing news that presents an important opportunity.

If domestic supply grows faster than demand, thanks to greater fuel efficiency, one result should be lower prices. That makes this a moment to consider the unthinkable: gradually increasing the federal gas tax. It hasn't been increased since 1993.

The nation's roads and bridges need work, and doing it would create jobs. But the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax, which funds the federal share for this critical infrastructure work, has remained frozen. During that time its value has been eroded by inflation.

And with vehicle fleet fuel economy standards slated to double to 54.4 miles per gallon by 2025, gas expenditures per mile traveled will decline, while wear and tear on roads and bridges won't. With the federal government focused on spending restraint and deficit reduction, the money for this key investment has to come from somewhere, and increased gas tax revenue -- possibly used to leverage private investment via an infrastructure bank -- would help fill the void.

The nation should also use the breathing room afforded by growing energy self-sufficiency to accelerate the development and use of renewable sources of energy. Even though greater oil and gas production will insulate the nation a bit from volatility in the oil-producing Middle East, extreme weather events and other environmental concerns won't go away. We still need to reduce our reliance on petroleum.

Climate change wasn't discussed much in the recent presidential campaign. When it was, Republican Mitt Romney reduced it to a laugh line, mocking Obama for saying after he locked up the 2008 Democratic nomination that "generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children . . . this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

Superstorm Sandy showed the folly of ignoring the specter of nasty storms and rising sea levels, and clinging to old sources of energy.


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