We needn’t have been in the fix we’re in today from the standpoint of energy availability/prices. That we are is a black mark against the leadership of this country over the past three decades for failing to commit the money and brainpower necessary for development of alternative energy forms and a national distribution infrastructure.

As noted in a previous column, Brazil, confronted with the same oil shortages that the U.S. faced in the 1970s, began a program that today has most of the country’s autos, trucks, and buses running on flex fuels, and the country well along toward energy independence.

That could’ve been the case in the U.S. — we could’ve knuckled down, bit the bullet, and made whatever investment necessary to move toward energy independence — but it was too easy to lapse back into our petroleum addiction.

So here we are, much behind the curve, faced with escalating prices for all forms of energy, and still with no concrete plan for coping with a future that likely will entail even higher prices, supply disruptions, and increased competition for supplies.

While gas pump prices have ebbed slightly below $2.50, no one really expects any long-term relief, and homeowners are facing natural gas rates for heating this winter that are estimated to be 50 percent to 90 percent above last year. The fertilizer industry, which uses natural gas as a primary feedstock for nitrogen materials, has been sledgehammered by these skyrocketing rates, facilities have been mothballed, and farmers have seen unprecedented price increases.

Dennis Moran, Center for Environmental Energy Engineering analyst, writing for Energy Pulse, says, “If demand for (oil and gas) keeps growing and we do not come up with alternative energy sources, we will see shortages and turmoil that exceed (Hurricane) Katrina’s aftermath.” This, he says, “will require massive changes in infrastructure and lifestyle. There is no quick fix available. Further delaying action will only make the transition more expensive and painful.”

The biggest step the U.S. has made toward reducing petroleum use in the last 30 years was mandating federal vehicle fuel efficiency standards that resulted in improved mileage and saved millions of gallons of oil. But subsequent attempts to raise those standards have been shot down.

The Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups say if all U.S. vehicles had a fuel efficiency of 40 miles per gallon, this country could reduce its dependency on foreign oil by 75 percent and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent, without sacrificing safety or performance.

U.S. automakers are ballyhooing their plans to increase production of flex fuel vehicles, a coals-to-Newcastle exercise since flex fuels are generally unavailable, and Big Oil is understandably less than enthusiastic about setting aside service station pumps for those fuels.

There is no little irony that the U.S. has the 11th highest proven oil reserves in the world, along with significant unproven reserves. But public opposition has hampered the exploration and drilling to make that oil available.

And more irony: Faced with massive budget shortfalls, the White House and its congressional allies are attempting to drastically slash already paltry federal funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com