It gets curiouser and curiouser, this country's inability to bite the bullet and commit to an all-out program for development of alternative energy.

Since the Arab embargo of the ’70s, we've lurched from one oil-related crisis to another, to the point Americans are now so benumbed by roller coaster energy prices that there seems little spirit left for outrage. As long as our SUVs can continue suckling at the corner gas station, who's to care how fragile the supply of petroleum that keeps the country moving along?

Thirty years ago, when our national oil appetite was far less than today, the populace was in near revolt as a result of gasoline shortages and $1 per gallon prices. The powers-that-be in Washington were bombarded with communications from citizens demanding something be done to develop a national energy policy that would keep us from ever again being held hostage to foreign suppliers. At least lip service was paid to doing that — until Mideast oil spigots were loosened, prices dropped, and lines at gas pumps were forgotten. Carpé diem, dude!

Today, the percentage of foreign oil consumed in the U.S. is even greater, supply lines even more tenuous, and we're as much or more snared in OPEC's web. In the prelude to whupping Saddam, gas prices in many parts of the country shot above $2, based entirely on the possibility of supply interruptions. Natural gas prices soared in concert, sending prices skyward for urea, the feedstock for nitrogen fertilizer. Diesel prices went stratospheric.

Yet… despite industry crocodile tears about shortages and lack of capacity, there wasn't a single report anywhere in the U.S. of anyone being unable to purchase gasoline/diesel, heating oil, or natural gas. An economy already on the ropes saw countless billions of dollars sucked from consumers, businesses, schools, into the coffers of the energy companies, and magically, the oil and gas kept flowing. Shortage? What shortage?

Now comes the U.S. House of Representatives with its 10-year, $50 billion, nearly 800-page energy bill which — surprise, surprise — is mostly another sop to the oil/gas industry. Oh, there's a smattering of money to promote energy conservation, for research on hydrogen-powered automobiles, and to provide tax breaks for alternative energy sources, but the bill would also open pristine Arctic and other wilderness areas to drilling, while failing to require increased vehicle fuel economy during the decade or more before anyone realistically expects hydrogen-powered vehicles to be available.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, D-La., who spearheaded its passage, claims the bill will "give the economy a good shot in the arm" and promote U.S. energy security, while Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wisc., says subsidies to the oil/gas industry would "put hundreds of millions of dollars into the already deep pockets of the major oil companies."

The bill must be reconciled with a Senate version, not yet complete. Senators have not previously looked favorably on Arctic drilling and have focused more on development of alternative energy sources. It remains to be seen if anything emerges that will begin to set this country on the road to reducing its addiction for imported oil.

Don't bet on it.

e-mail: Hembree Brandon