With unemployment rising and stock prices fluctuating, many Americans are taking comfort in one piece of good economic news. Gas prices have dropped to between $2 and $3 a gallon from their $4.11 high in July.
But cheaper gas may not be in the country's long-term best interests if Americans respond to lower prices by abandoning their new economizing habits and returning to their guzzling. It's vitally important for the next president and Congress to keep the nation moving aggressively toward an energy-efficient and environmentally friendly future despite the availability of cheap oil.
This year, high pump prices convinced most consumers that this country could no longer afford to remain dependent on expensive foreign oil. Many drivers turned to smaller, more fuel-efficient hybrid and electric cars and helped spur investments in clean and efficient energy industries. Now, with much lower oil prices, the demand for clean energy alternatives is less urgent and a weak economy is making it politically unfeasible for Congress to introduce taxes that would make clean energy more competitive.
A number of energy experts worry that the economic crisis could bring the emerging green revolution to a screeching halt. It's happened before. In the late 1970s, an OPEC oil embargo caused serious gasoline shortages and significantly higher prices that sparked an American crusade in pursuit of energy alternatives. But that effort ended quickly and the nation returned to its wasteful ways when the global price of oil plunged in the 1980s.
Today, with a lengthy recession likely, cheap gas and tight credit are almost certain to significantly slow evolution toward use and development of hybrid vehicles and investments in less-wasteful energy sources.
To counter that effect, Washington could require every utility in the country to produce 20 percent of its power from clean energy sources - wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, biomass - by 2025. About half the states already have such goals in place; Maryland's calls for the state to produce 20 percent clean power by 2022. Setting a uniform national goal would multiply its effectiveness. Another option would be to offer a major tax break for any company that invests in clean energy technology or any individual who buys an energy-saving device manufactured in this country.
Finally, when an economic recovery begins, the nation's leaders should provide tax incentives to encourage energy innovations rather than enriching foreign oil producers. Americans need to recognize that sacrifices are needed to achieve a brighter future.