The guys on the campaign trail keep trying to ig nore the trillion-pound rhinoceros in the room. But soaring oil prices thunder the obvious: America had better prepare for a possible fall in world oil output if it doesn’t want to be left without affordable energy options.
The world isn’t running out of oil, yet.

There are still more than 1.3 trillion barrels of proven and probable oil reserves in the ground. Most of it is in the Middle East, but vast amounts also lie in the Western hemisphere and in Russia. Locked in hard-to-reach areas, tricky deposits or partially unexplored regions could be even more oil that will become profitable as oil prices soar.

But wars, miscalculations, politics and outright lies about proven reserves have the potential to inflame fears and lead to embargoes, oilfield seizures, trade disruptions and a loss of investor confidence.

Already, some major oil producers have cut back their estimates of their own “proven reserves” in effect saying that the oil they thought they could pump cheaply and quickly won’t be so easy to get at.

Oil worker strikes, terrorist attacks and political unrest recently have depressed output and sent oil prices to non-inflation-adjusted records.

Oil futures have risen 80 percent in a year.

Meanwhile, China is buying up all it can, blowing apart previous calculations for demand and pinching oil markets further.

During the oil price shocks of the 1970s, America imported about 40 percent of its oil. Today it’s closer to 60 percent, and we’re beginning to import significant amounts of our natural gas, too.

Many Americans will have to pay hundreds of dollars extra this winter for heating fuels, while energy costs are pounding the bottom line for U.S. airlines, and beginning to act as a drag on consumer spending.

Yet U.S. energy policy is the issue that virtually no candidate wants to discuss. The best options are seen as too draconian and politically suicidal – among them, forcing up average fuel-economy standards for SUVs, for instance, raising gas taxes or leaning on businesses to conserve.

Sen. John Kerry co-sponsored an energy amendment two years ago that would have raised average fuel standards to 36 miles per gallon, but “has since backed off mentioning any specific miles-per-gallon figure, although his platform and a spokeswoman stressed fuel efficiency was a cornerstone of his energy and environmental plan,” reports the Boston Globe.

Other possible measures have significant downsides, such as President George W. Bush’s proposal to drill for oil in the Alaska wildlife refuge, or building more coal-fired plants that will pollute even with expensive gasification or scrubbing techniques, and nuclear plants that generate waste that stays radioactive for 10,000 years.

The result this campaign season is political opportunism trumping solutions.

Kerry is the culprit of the moment, as he panders to Nevada voters by trashing the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site (a spot that should be suspect because of the area’s volcanic history, not because of electoral votes) and remakes himself as an advocate of “clean coal” to please the folks in southeast Ohio.

But President George W. Bush earns potentially blacker marks if he took this nation to war in part over oil, without ever acknowledging it.

The evidence is circumstantial, but compelling: One of the great conundrums of the coming oil crunch is how to diversify away from the Saudi spigot. Iraq, sitting on the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves, and Afghanistan, a potential gateway to the Caspian Sea region, provide some answers.

Earlier this year, the New Yorker magazine revealed a “top-secret” Feb. 3, 2001, National Security Council document, that the magazine said “directed the NSC staff to cooperate fully with [Vice President Dick Cheney’s] Energy Task Force as it considered the ‘melding’ of two seemingly unrelated areas of policy: ‘the review of operational policies towards rogue states,’ such as Iraq, and ‘actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields.’ ”

Now that loaded word “capture” could mean acquisition through friendly persuasion or deals, not conquest.

But the Bush administration’s refusal in the teeth of repeated requests from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office – which resorted to legal action to try to elicit information – to reveal even the most basic details about the 3½-month energy task force feeds suspicions that all was not as it should have been.

The GAO couldn’t even get plausible data from Cheney’s office on how much the energy task force cost. GAO backed off its legal challenge after receiving a judicial rebuff on jurisdictional grounds, but outside groups still are trying to force the files open.

One of them – the nonprofit group Judicial Watch – last year made public a densely annotated Iraq oil map dated March 2001, along with charts of Iraqi oil and gas projects and a list of “foreign suitors” for Iraqi oil, that it received as part of its legal efforts to open up the energy task force documents.

Such materials should not be considered in isolation.

That’s why this administration must reveal the full range of deliberations of Cheney’s task force and those who advised it.

Not only is such transparency part of what elected representatives owe those they serve, but it would help put to rest the inevitable speculation that the Cheney group was plotting, as early as 2001, hostile action to seize Iraq’s oil fields.

© 2004