National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Why Bush is Out of Gas




The worst-ever president of the United States strutted into the Rose Garden again yesterday to berate Congress for resisting his pressure to open up offshore oil drilling.

President Bush was not speaking in the national interest, but in the interest of his oil company and commodity speculator cronies. They’re seeking to exploit the current conditions, which they’ve worked to create, to get at something they’ve coveted for a long time, the ability to drill on the outer continental shelf.

By denying them this new demand, Congress is hurting average Americans at the gas pump, the president and his cronies rant. They don’t bellow like this to gain a political advantage, they do it because they want that oil.

Forget that it would take a decade to deliver a single drop from there. This is a case, plain and simple, of political bullying aimed at furthering oil’s corporate and financial interests. Of course, John McCain is with this program, too.

Forget that it is such as these who’ve brought the world to this point, promoting over the last half-century a regrettable dependence on the finite resource of oil that now threatens to grind the world economy to a halt.

Actions by Democrats in Congress have already driven the cost of a barrel of oil down dramatically, simply by threatening to investigate and place constraints on oil speculators. If they follow through, the cost will continue to drop, although the president stands ready to veto any legislation that gets passed.

Still, low inventory numbers yesterday couldn’t help but reverse the declining price trend, pushing it higher for the first time in a week. As the inventory squeeze tightens, then, more than just futures speculation will drive prices back up.

This all started in the aftermath of World War II, as the nation emerged from the war and the Great Depression that preceded it.

The oil industry, through the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, introduced a profound paradigm shift in the energy-deployment practices in America, moving it away from water and rail, toward automobiles, trucks and highways.

The defining moment was Eisenhower’s signing the Interstate Highway law. Mistakenly hailed as a vital new step forward in the development of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, it actually marked a step away from energy efficiency toward dependency on a highly-inefficient use of lots and lots of oil.

While the nation’s rail infrastructure has withered, even today anyone requiring the shipping of large quantities of product can tell you the dramatic difference in the energy cost of moving goods by rail, as compared to truck.

The other part of the national infrastructure that was abandoned with the rise of the almighty auto was the use of water. The nation developed in its infancy through a system of canals, such as the Erie Canal, until the rails came along.

But water remained vital, both in the production of hydro-electric power and its large-scale diversion to enable the irrigation of otherwise non-yielding arid lands.

There is a great irony now that, as the planet heats up and fresh water is in diminishing supply, such water diversion projects are not being utilized to re-vegetate, and thereby cool, the planet. Such an approach addresses famine issues, too.

Before the oil interests’ paradigm shift became locked in, water from the Colorado River turned a Los Angeles basin desert into an area easily capable of supporting 12 million people, and water from the Sacramento River turned the California Central Valley into the most intense and productive agricultural region of the world.

Before that shift, in the 1950s, the Ralph Parsons Company of Pasadena developed an engineering plan for diverting northward-flowing waters from huge rivers in Alaska and Canada down to the Southwestern U.S. and High Plains. In the 1970s, Sen. Frank Moss from Utah brought it to Congress, where it died. The rivers are still there.

That plan, and others, combined with a revival of rail, would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, save huge sums of energy in the long run, and bring both an abundance of food and a cooling effect on the atmosphere.

Bush’s appeal for more of the same approach is, itself, simply out of gas. But in considering a pathway to the future, maybe the nation should revisit some of the options it abandoned when the oilmen first took over.

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