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Present oil trouble not without a past

Gas prices soar to record highs.

Middle East violence prompts fears of dwindling oil supplies and visions of embargos.

Americans call for "independence" from foreign oil and reconsider our love affair with gas-guzzlers.

Today's headlines bring a disturbing sense of déjà vu for Frank Zarb and James Schlesinger, the nation's energy czars in the 1970s, the last time the price of oil doubled with neck-snapping rapidity.

Thirty years ago, Zarb was picked by President Gerald Ford to carry out "Project Independence" -- a program designed to get America off of its dependency on foreign oil, then about 38 percent of all petroleum used. The concept was first proposed by President Richard Nixon in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which choked the supply and caused round-the-block lines and "gasless Sundays" at the pump.

After another gas crisis in the late 1970s, Schlesinger, serving as energy chief under President Jimmy Carter, also tried to wean America off of foreign oil and pushed for more fuel-efficient cars.

But both men, now in private business, say they were blocked by overwhelming political obstacles in the fight for energy independence, and hampered by a nation often unwilling to curb its insatiable gasoline consumption. By the 1980s, gas was plentiful and cheap again, and much of the 1970s debate was dropped.

Until now.

"We go through the same cycle and the same arguments are made, the same predictions are made, the same promises are made -- and of course, we end up where we are," said Zarb about the differences between then and now. "Major and significant energy policy change will only occur in the face of an energy crisis."

Schlesinger said most politicians are unwilling to enact tough measures, even if they are needed, because of the public's reluctance to give up the big-car lifestyle of SUVs and minivans.

"The fundamental problem is that the American public is not yet willing to make substantial changes in their standard of living," said Schlesinger. "Oil dependency will not be ended by rhetoric."

America today has become far more dependent than ever before. Long Island remains one of the most car-dependent economies, with about 90 percent of its oil coming from foreign suppliers, significantly more than the 64 percent national average, experts say.

Today's prices at the pump seem light years away from the 1970s, when Nixon launched "Project Independence." Until that time, nearly two-thirds of the 18 million barrels used each day came from domestic wells and refineries rather than places such as Kuwait, Libya or Venezuela. The abrupt cutoff from abroad was a wake-up call for Americans.

In a January 1974 radio address about the national energy crisis, Nixon declared: "We must never again be caught in a foreign-made crisis where the United States is dependent on any other country, friendly or unfriendly, for the energy we need to produce our jobs, to heat our homes, to furnish our transportation for wherever we want to go."

Back then, Americans were accustomed to driving eight-cylinder cruisers burning gas that cost less than 50 cents a gallon. Nixon scoffed at those who predicted higher prices.

"I will do everything I can to hold down the price of foreign oil," Nixon promised. "Scare stories that the American people will soon be paying a dollar for a gallon of gas are just as ridiculous as the stories that will say that we are paying a dollar for a loaf of bread. The American people cannot afford to pay such prices, and I can assure you that we will not have to pay them."

Credited with being the first president to offer such a plan, Nixon warned Americans must act. "If we permit ourselves to slacken our efforts and slide back into the wasteful consumption of energy, then the full force of the energy crisis will be brought home to America in a most devastating fashion."

But by the time Zarb became energy czar under Ford, he recalled, Middle East oil supplies and domestic prices had stabilized. The long lines at the pumps were a fading memory. Zarb made national news when he answered that gasoline could someday rise to $1 a gallon. America was no longer worried about energy independency.

America suffered another gas crisis in the late 1970s, accompanied by a sharp rise in inflation. Carter gave an impassioned 1979 televised speech in which he called for national sacrifice to end the energy dilemma. "This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our nation," Carter declared.

Carter created the coal-based synthetic fuels program as an alternative, which later suffered many troubles with few results. He did manage to lower the rate of imported oil to 30 percent -- a dropoff of about 10 percent from earlier levels. Eventually, his energy-saving measures such as mandatory conservation, windfall profit taxes and standby rationing designed to reduce foreign oil dependency were mostly rejected.

"Carter was serious about it and paid a significant price -- and wise politicians have avoided the problem ever since," said Schlesinger, also a former secretary of defense and CIA director. Three decades later, Schlesinger expressed concern about the high cost of imported energy -- now more than $130 billion annually, he estimates -- which is having a severe impact on America's balance of payments and overall economy. Environmental concerns have prevented any new domestic production in recent years, he said, despite improvements in technology designed to avoid oil leaks and other problems.

Schlesinger said the country won't venture down the road to independence "until somebody develops a commercial substitute for the internal combustion engine."

Zarb said he doesn't know any easy solutions because America's dependence on oil has created a Catch-22.

"I don't know how you make a difference here even if you have a legitimate legislative body prepared to go to war on this issue and really make something happen," he said. "I don't think it would get any support as soon as the energy problem looks better. So it's a classic public policy question."

Editorial Notes: Of course the 'cycle' can't continue forever, and ignoring the difference between previous politically generated energy crises, with current ones which may be geological in basis, is very problematic.

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