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Short-term relief: Gasoline price drop welcome, but it can't last

Happy days are here again. Oregon gasoline prices have dropped 28 cents a gallon in the past month, bringing tangible pocketbook relief to the motoring public just in time for the summer driving season.

You're thinking, "I can deal with two bucks a gallon. Heck, I've been paying way more."

It's all relative. After all the media scare stories that gas was headed for $3 a gallon, never to go lower again, things have worked out OK.

But before you top off the tanks in the family motor pool and file your fuel price fears in the "Unfounded" folder, we'd like to leave you with one word to remember, just in case the happy days don't last as long as you hoped: "China."

China, with a population of 1.3 billion (U.S. population 294 million), has almost overnight become the world's second-largest oil user, after the United States. Energy demand is escalating so rapidly in China that it could double within 15 years.

Paul Roberts, author of "The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World," said in a column for The Washington Post that China is now challenging the United States for access to oil in Russia and Africa.

Far more worrisome, the Chinese are courting Saudi Arabia, America's ace in the OPEC hole. And China has formidable bargaining power. It offers potential producers access to the world's biggest energy market and the prospect of sophisticated weaponry that the U.S. and Europe refuse to sell to Arab states.

China is in a class by itself, but the emerging economies of India, Brazil and the rest of the developing world, coupled with increasing demand for oil in Europe and Japan, mean that existing petroleum reserves will struggle to keep up. The simple economics of supply and demand argue that no matter how much oil prices moderate in the short run, there is only one way they can go in the long run: sky high.

The solutions are the same as they have been since the 1970s: Reduce demand by developing alternative fuels, focusing on conservation, increasing vehicle fuel economy and promoting mass transit. The solution is not the Bush administration's preposterous initiatives to drill more wells in pristine wilderness or coastal areas that would supply only a sliver of U.S. demand.

So enjoy these gas prices while they last, because they are only going to be with us for a short time before they head back up. If that worries you, consider sending Congress a clear message that we need a meaningful national energy policy - as opposed to the energy industry candy jar currently on the table. The message could be a post card with one word written on it: "China."

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