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Ignoring Another Adversary -- Oil Dependence
An Essay by Ev Ehrlich

audio Listen to Ehrlich's essay.

Nov. 5, 2001 -- Oil is a lens that magnifies both the threat Osama bin Laden poses and the power he possesses. It is the source of the money that finances him -- both over and under the table. And it is the reason why his political agenda is so frightening, because his ultimate objective is to destabilize the oil-soaked sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf, principally Saudi Arabia, and to leave that part of the world in a fundamentalist challenge to modern life.

In short, bin Laden's very existence summons up the full nuisance value of our dependence on this one commodity.

Had our nation any other strategic vulnerability, you may be assured the resources to overcome it would be forthcoming and then some. We're prepared to spend billions for untested technology to intercept hypothetical missiles in space, but the idea of taking concerted action to change the way we produce and consume energy still strikes many as starry-eyed and Utopian.

"Oil has played a hand in four recessions and now two wars in 30 years. Any other adversary would have been subdued by now."

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Instead, the energy policy debate is preoccupied with questions that simply don't address this weakness. We can argue about whether oil companies ought to drill in the Alaskan Wildlife Reserve, but even if you put a straw into Alaska and sucked with both lungs, we'd still be as vulnerable to events in the Persian Gulf as we are now. We could dig up all the abundant coal our nation has and boil it and still be just as exposed -- and that's before we considered what the atmosphere and climate would look like for centuries to come.

It will take decades to wean America from imported oil, but that's why we need to start now. It requires developing technology that promotes renewable and non-carbon processes and resources and conservation. It means having a plan for a sustainable economy that government and business share. And when you get right down to it, it means being willing to raise energy prices.

Americans have accepted the president's admonition that there will be sacrifice in the months and years ahead. Before this is over, more lives may be lost. Are we prepared to endure that sacrifice but not, say, another 25 or 50 cents at the pump, particularly when the proceeds could be used to cut other taxes or to pay for the R&D towards a sustainable future? Are we truly incapable of seeing the relationship between the two?

Oil has played a hand in four recessions and now two wars in 30 years. Any other adversary would have been subdued by now.

Ev Ehrlich is the former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration. His latest novel is called "Grant Speaks."