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What's up with gas prices?

Visiting a gas station these days is like going in for a root canal. First comes procrastination, followed by dread, and then "open wide." There's no laughter at the pumps anymore. The Toot ‘n' Moo is as somber as a morgue, full of glum motorists mourning the demise of cheap gasoline. Spending $75 used to be a penance reserved for truckers, but now everyone can tithe. Take your pick: Shell, Exxon, Chevron, they are all eager to drill your wallet.

I've been thinking about energy, trying to make sense of energy trends and energy appetites and the main conclusion I've reached is that energy is an IQ test that we Americans tend to fail.

Because our continent was a great piñata, stuffed with coal, oil, and natural gas, we've never developed an energy ethic. An English poet once wrote that energy was "eternal delight." But for an American to put "energy" and "ethic" into the same sentence seems revolutionary, the breaking of a taboo.

The value of land we have long understood. The value of energy we never have.

America invented the hot dog, baseball, and the national park. Yellowstone dates to 1872. Teddy Roosevelt got the national forests going a century ago. Aldo Leopold published Sand County Almanac in 1949, urging us to "think like a mountain." With the Endangered Species Act, we took Noah out of the Bible and put him into law. Some ranchers hate the ESA, but it was the first right-to-life act.

It is peak driving season, and Americans are on the move. (A typical motorist drives the distance to the Moon every 20 years.) With oil over $70, CNBC invited me to do an interview on a low-grade, high-ash proto-petroleum otherwise known as oil shale. This was one of those biz shows, with a crawling stock ticker, and traders drunk on high-octane currency flows.

The opening gambit hasn't changed for a century: "There's a trillion barrels of oil shale in Colorado, more oil than in all of Arabia, enough oil to run this country for the next 100 years, when are you redneck hayseeds going to unlock that prize?"

The only people more clueless about energy than politicians are reporters. "There's more energy in a ton of Cap'n Crunch than in a ton of oil shale," I replied. "Oil shale provides just one ten-thousandth of world energy, far less than animal dung, and prospects for expansion are poor."

As the camera cut back to the trading pit, I tried to frame our dilemma in a way he might understand. "You're selling dollars, yen, euros, and gold, but energy is the original currency." I could have been shouting down a well.

Later that day I got an email from a retired Saudi oil executive. There's been a lot of blog speculation about declining production at Ghawar, the Kingdom's largest field. I asked this oil man for the real scoop.

The Saudis have done Yankee bidding for a long time, but this guy offered only tough love. "There has been a paradigm shift in the energy world," he wrote. "Oil producers are no longer inclined to exhaust their resource for the sake of accelerating the misuse of a precious commodity."

This is what the pump price is trying to tell you. That twenty nations produce 85% of the world's oil. That production in half of those countries is flat or declining. That Chavez in Venezuela and Putin in Russia have figured out that they can make more money by pumping less oil. Which is the flip side of the value proposition at your local Kum ‘n' Go.

What remains is a bumper crop of clueless politicians. Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl wants to sue the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, who has spent decades crusading against fuel efficiency standards, fatuously claims that "oil shale will rock the world," putting the fear of God into the Arabs.

For all the happy talk about energy independence, only eight states, including five in the Rockies, produce more energy than they consume. The others are as helpless as patients in intensive care. The risk is that these parasites will, over the coming decades, suck us dry, leaving our landscapes as eviscerated as Halloween pumpkins.

When it comes to energy, Americans resemble spoiled children who are used to always getting their way. Since the oil is in the Mideast, and its most avaricious consumers are here, it might be useful to run Phoenix or L.A. like Baghdad for a week or two. Close the pumps, turn the power off, let the taps run dry, and see what gives. We'd quickly relearn that civilization is a thin veneer, that energy invented comfort and wealth, and that decades of clueless policies have now put prosperity at risk.

The American land ethic is based on the common sense idea that they "aren't making anymore." So too, it seems, with energy.

Randy Udall directs CORE, a non-profit energy office in Carbondale, Colorado. He's also a co-founder of ASPO-USA.

ASPO-USA is a nonpartisan, proactive effort to encourage prudent energy management, constructive community transformation, and cooperative initiatives during an era of depleting petroleum resources.

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