Over the past several weeks, gasoline at service stations in our town has fallen more than $1 per gallon, reflecting the slide in world oil prices that saw the commodity lose more than half the $147 per barrel record price it hit in July.
OPEC members, concerned lest the tsunami of dollars flowing into their coffers be sharply diminished, met last week to discuss production cuts to try and shore up the market. Many industry experts feel that, barring some unforeseen major positive upturn in the worldwide economy that would ratchet up demand, the price will continue downward, and could drop to $50 per barrel or less.
All of which means a few dollars less with every fill-up at the service station, some reduction in winter home heating costs that had been forecast higher than last year’s record, perhaps some slight abatement of the skyrocketing inflation at the grocery store, and maybe, just maybe, cost reductions for some of the inputs farmers must purchase.
However welcome these savings, they come at a steep price: world economies in shambles, a record U.S. national debt, and a financial system beset by one calamity after another, continually teetering on the verge of collapse.
So, the downward spiral of oil/gas prices is kinda like taking a handful of aspirins for a broken arm — it may dull the pain for a while, but the underlying problem’s still there. That problem is the need for this country to buckle down and do what’s necessary to move away from a petroleum-based economy. The resolve, determination, and commitment of brainpower and resources necessary to accomplish that, alas, are not nearly so strong when oil prices are in free-fall, supply is plentiful for a curtailed demand, and world economies are on the ropes.
Moving decisively away from an oil infrastructure built up over a century won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap. While nobody really doubts that American ingenuity can come up with better ways to power our vehicles and buildings, we seem not to be able to muster the consistency of leadership and commitment of resources necessary to develop a coordinated plan and see it to fruition.
The current circumstances may differ, but it’s not like we haven’t been down this route before — going back to the 1970s Arab oil embargo, blocks-long lines at gas stations, and empty pumps. Never again, we vowed. But oil became plentiful once more, and our resolve melted like a Popsicle on hot summer pavement, a pattern that has been repeated for three and a half decades.
And now we’re in danger of doing it again. As oil prices fall and a tattered economy makes money hard to come by, a beleaguered Congress and administration may be less inclined to support expensive alternative energy research and development programs.
The reality is that we remain just one OPEC tantrum, one refinery explosion, one recovering economy, one hurricane/major disaster away from yet another energy migraine.
If we fail now to meaningfully begin reducing our dependence on oil, next time around we may be hopelessly behind the economic curve.