THE BLOG
10/18/2013 02:30 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

How to Waste 40 Years

Forty years ago the Saudi Oil Ministry informed the U.S. Secretary of Defense that it would no longer supply fuel to the U.S. 6th fleet. The Arab oil embargo had begun. I had just begun as an environmentalist, and watched the nation struggle with how to deal with the news that our reliance on oil as the mainstay of our economy was no longer working.

So it's sobering to watch the national leaders who had to cope with that first oil embargo -- and its successor oil crises like the Iran crisis of 1979 and the Gulf War -- draw their scary assessment of where we are:

Admiral Dennis Blair: "We shouldn't be lulled by our new oil production into thinking this is going to bail us out."

Henry Kissinger: "When I was in government I remember no concerns expressed by anyone about the environmental impact of oil consumption."

Leon Panetta: "We could have an America in renaissance. Or we could be in an America in decline, if we continue to fail to govern. That will determine if we make the right decisions about energy."

And James Schlesinger: "Since the 1970s no president deserves even a C+ on energy, because the public is not angry about energy and without public anger, things don't happen."

These leaders -- and a dozen others from business to entrepreneurship -- have been gathered to ponder the meaning of the 40th anniversary of the embargo by Securing America's Future Energy, an organization single-mindedly focused on how to deal with the threat of energy insecurity produced by our reliance on oil.

Schlesinger, I think, has it right. For a few years -- through the first embargo and then the Iranian crisis -- the country reacted. Not all of the ideas floated were good ones: Jimmy Carter's synthetic fuels program was a boondoggle. But the nation made for a time major progress in improving the efficiency of our vehicles, shifting off of oil for electricity, and cutting out some of our wasteful practices.

Then the price of oil fell again, at Ronald Reagan's urging, we slipped into a national coma, one we didn't wake up from even when, in 2004 the price of oil began its startling run up to over $100 barrel.

Today oil is twice as expensive as it was (in constant dollars) after the first embargo, we import a larger percentage of our total demand than in 1973, and we spend vastly more importing those barrels. We have plunged ourselves ever more deeply into a toxic military relationship with the Persian Gulf, and watch seemingly helplessly as the nations who profiteer selling us $100 oil use the proceeds to undercut our diplomacy and national security.

Our national government has become a global laughing stock as we shutter the doors of basic governmental services, and a terrifying threat as we repeatedly lurch towards a possible default on the world's most important financial instrument, U.S. government debt -- the latest round of this brinksmanship closed out only a few hours after the OPEC+40 conference.

This political crisis is allegedly driven by the inability of the two parties to agree on how to cut the deficit. Yet we seem oblivious to the fact that the decadal increase in the price of oil is responsible for $1.2 trillion of that debt, and that cutting the use of oil by 50 percent by 2040 would reduce our cumulative national debt by another $5 trillion. Why not stop exporting jobs and dollars to import oil which we then waste? Why not use our dollars to build our own economy instead of Russia's?

Forty years ago the U.S. tried everything -- but its options were not very good. Today, with oil over $100, we are swimming in options: improving vehicle economy and performance, shifting from air and road to rail and ship, enabling ourselves to get around without getting in a car, and fuel diversification -- electricity, biofuels, natural gas -- all replace oil at a cost a lot less than $100 barrel. The key missing ingredient is competition and choice in the transportation sector -- not technology or economics. We have allowed a foreign oil production cartel to be sustained by a domestic transportation fuel distribution and infrastructure monopoly.

Indeed, by far the most positive voices at the conference are from companies like GM and Royal Caribbean, talking about the enormous progress they have made in alternative fuels and efficiency -- and the business opportunities they have uncovered. GM's CEO Dan Akerson says, somewhat boastfully, "Our new Chevrolet Spark Electric Vehicle can accelerate 0 to 60 miles per hour as quickly as the iconic '67 Camaro SS. And it's possible to drive 1,000 miles or more between fill-ups in a Chevrolet Volt or the all-new Cadillac ELR, if you do most of your driving in pure electric mode."

And as Akerson acknowledges, this is also about posterity and climate.

Oil combustion is responsible for more than a third of the climate crisis which accelerates every day. Wasting oil is the part of the climate crisis getting the least attention. The president has articulated -- even with difficult political realities -- a strong set of strategies to reduce our combustion of coal. In this he is joining the environmental community which has developed and is implementing an increasingly effective and increasingly global clean electricity strategy.

But neither the president nor the environmental community has developed a similar strategy to ending our waste of oil and crackdown on its monopoly, even though that waste and monopoly are not only an environmental catastrophe but also an economic and security nightmare. The fuel economy standards which Obama put in place as part of his strategy to rescue the U.S. auto makers were an enormous first step -- and they worked. Why then did we seemingly stop, as if the job was done?

When California adopted tough fuel efficiency rules to bring the auto industry to the negotiating table, other states rushed to join it. But California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard, written by a Republican government, has yet to find partners and allies.

Perhaps the source of our lassitude is 40 years of effective propaganda by the oil industry, telling us that only if we "drill baby drill" can we curb our dependence. Perhaps it is the fact that just when we get ready to react in the face of $5 gasoline, the price of oil tanks the global economy and briefly falls back to earth.

Perhaps we simply need to get angry, and demand some leadership.

My headline was misleading. We didn't waste the first five years after the embargo, as Schlesinger reminded us. But surely 35 years is still too long to nap.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."