It has become clear to all of us that the nation's dependence on imported oil presents an immediate and exponentially growing risk to our national and economic security. Even President Bush has cautioned that "tyrants control the spigots." These are strong words, especially from a Texas oilman, but hardly extravagant in light of the recent failed attack on the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia, the general state of the world from Nigeria to Venezuela to Iran, and new threats over the weekend from Al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahari. (In an audiotape posted on the Internet on Saturday, March 4, Al-Zawahari urged Muslims to "inflict losses on the crusader West, especially to its economic infrastructure . . . to make it bleed for years . . . to prevent [it] from stealing the Muslims' oil.")
Given the seriousness of the threat, it is essential that the United States act now to moderate the price of oil and to assure an equitable distribution of available supply, no matter what the circumstances. But what the president has proposed are, at best, vague and underfunded alternative-energy initiatives, ranging from biofuels to clean coal to nuclear power, whose promised benefits are years away. The will to take quick and forceful action appears to be lacking. Most glaringly, there has been no mention of controlling demand, the shunted-aside stepchild of the energy debate. Indeed, the deafening silence lends an almost heretical aura to the question of mandating constraints on demand. Yet, such constraints are the most immediate and effective way for us to gain control and a modicum of self-respect on this issue in the eyes of the world.
Ironically, we needn't look any further than the cap-and-trade Clear Skies Initiative for a viable and very successful example of what can and should be done to take control of oil consumption. The federal Clear Skies program permits cleaner-operating power companies to sell emissions credits to heavier polluters, thereby keeping total emissions within government-mandated levels. In spite of early criticism, the program has worked admirably and has reduced total pollution.
A similar program incorporating a national system of tradable gasoline vouchers could be instituted almost immediately. Every car owner would be entitled to a designated number of vouchers based on geographical location, vocational need, transportation options, and so on, with the idea being to meet a national target for gasoline consumption. The target would be revised, say, every three months or as contingencies necessitated. A driver who needed more gas than he or she was allotted could buy vouchers from drivers who needed less than the average. The price would be set by the market, with rights traded through classified ads, online bulletin boards, or local markets accessed at filling stations. Widely available tech products such as the versatile debit card could greatly facilitate the process.
The effects of the "Cap-and-Ride Open Road Initiative," let's call it, would be fair and immediate. Everyone would be free to choose how little or how much gasoline to use, and no one would be unduly penalized. But, more to the point, oil consumption would be effectively controlled while also encouraging more fuel-efficient use of cars and trucks and public transportation. Equally important, we would have a system in place that assured equitable distribution of available fossil fuels in case a major displacement occurred or an emergency threatened.
Unlike an across-the-board gas tax, which would set the antitax folks to howling while unfairly punishing the poor and those living in rural areas and in cities and towns without public transportation options, a voucher system would give all Americans a chance to pitch in to avert a national crisis. It would also set an example for other oil-importing nations to institute similar programs and would give our government valuable negotiating leverage with oil producers (i.e., if a producer threatens to cut supply, we retaliate by mandating a cut in consumption). In the end, a voucher system would allow us to regain our energy self-reliance.
Can we do it? Yes, but only with visionary political leadership and forceful political will. Just don't expect the oil patch to lend a hand.