It may be the crime of the century, the failure of the U.S. to knuckle down and make a firm commitment to a national energy program.

Three decades have gone by since the blocks-long gas lines of the 1970s Arab oil embargo, and we're no closer to a coherent, meaningful energy policy than we were then. Perhaps less so. At least, in the flush of anger and resentment surrounding the original embargo, there was a concentrated effort to conduct research on alternative energy sources and faltering first steps were made toward programs for reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

But good intentions faded into the background as OPEC and Big Oil reopened the spigots and we were once again happily engrossed in our love affair with the internal combustion engine (albeit, usually at much higher fuel prices).

For 30 years now, we've lurched from one oil crisis to another. First time around, we were aghast at the prospects of $1 per gallon gas. But we paid. It was still a lot cheaper than the $4 to $5 per gallon in Europe and elsewhere. It became a predictable cycle: When attention was focused on rising prices and public outrage started escalating, OPEC's puppeteers pulled the strings and, voila, prices magically went down. We responded, predictably, by building bigger, hungrier vehicles and giving little thought to our growing gluttony for oil.

Now, with gasoline prices having hit $2 per gallon in many areas of the country (even higher in California), we're fed the usual story about refinery capacity, supply problems, etc., etc. Interestingly, though these “capacity” and “supply” problems occur with increasing frequency (just coincidentally during peak travel periods), I've not seen a single report of anyone unable to find gasoline, whether it's $1 a gallon or when it's $2 a gallon — there just magically seems to be enough to meet demand, while billions and billions of additional dollars flow into Big Oil coffers. The industry, however, never seems to invest any of its windfall billions in new refinery capacity or infrastructure to avert future shortages.

The energy policy put forth by the Bush Administration and being batted about in Congress (again) probably should get an award for fiction writing. About the only people who seem to like it are the Bush people themselves, many of whom have decades-long allegiances to the petroleum sector. While the president and his people give lip service to the promise of hydrogen-powered cars, fusion power, solar cells, etc., they know full well that for the foreseeable future the fortunes of this country will continue to be shackled, in majority portion, to petroleum. And we will continue to dance to the tune, and the whims, of OPEC and Big Oil.

Nobody's betting any money that an energy bill will even reach the president's desk. There are many who say the current legislation is such a turkey that Congress should simply abandon it, spend what little time they have left in trying to solve the problems of the nation's hopelessly inadequate electrical grid, and start with a clean slate on an energy policy next session.

How long, oh Lord…


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com