NATIONAL AMNESIA seems to be the order of the day now that skyrocketing prices of gasoline have suddenly become a burning political issue in the presidential campaign. Twenty-three years ago, when the first major oil crisis was upon us, every politician within reach of a microphone was deploring a growing U.S. dependence on foreign suppliers and demanding energy conservation on a scale never seen before.
Not so this time. President Clinton's response has been to release 12 million barrels from the strategic oil reserve -- a resource that was supposed to be used only in event of a real emergency. Senate majority leader Bob Dole's solution is to repeal the latest 4.3 cents-a-gallon federal gasoline -- just a fraction of the 20-cent rise that has taken place in recent weeks.
Why are the watchdogs not barking? Why are our leading politicians engaged in a pander contest when the latest developments should be a wake-up call to the nation?
We know all the feel-good assurances that have led to the return of the gas guzzler. Haven't proven reserves worldwide actually increased? Haven't most of the paraphernalia of our civilization become far more energy efficient? Aren't alternative fuels as inevitable as fusion and proliferating microbes?
Well, let's look at the record. In 1973, the United States imported 36 percent of its oil from foreign suppliers. Today that figure is 50 percent. In 10 years, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, our vulnerability will reach 60 percent -- one third of it from the Middle East. Last year, oil imports represented $44.6 billion of the nation's $84.5 billion trade deficit, and the EIA figures this outflow of wealth will reach $100 billion in 10 years.
With a flood of dollars coursing toward such rogue nations as Iran and (eventually) Iraq, and the former states of the Soviet Union hardly in control of their nuclear stockpiles, the oil situation becomes a security threat worthy of more than passing notice in Washington.
Yet instead of yelping loudly -- a no-no in an election year -- President Clinton and Senator Dole are dishing out palliatives with only temporary market impact. Republicans just can't resist tax cuts, no matter that a $4.8 billion revenue loss contradicts their fealty toward a balanced budget. Democrats are typically sniffing collusion among the big oil companies.
Unfortunately, the problem is a lot more fundamental than such election-year gimmickry. Twenty years from now our citizens may wonder why the watchdogs didn't bark.
Pub Date: 5/01/96