What Middle East’s Civil Revolts Mean For U.S. Energy Policy

North Africa and the Middle East have caught a contagion — the quest for political freedom. After being surprised by the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya, the rest of the world can only guess how far and how fast these revolutions will continue to spread.

Second guessing is a favorite political sport in the nation’s capital, so DC pundits have spent the past few weeks focusing on possible intelligence failures and what the President did or did not know. The reality may be that forecasting specific timelines for political unrest may not have been possible. Still, our political leaders should have known these revolts were a question of “when” not “if.” In many of these countries, the average age of the population falls in the 20s; research has found that heavily young populations are more likely to experience instances of revolt than more balanced ones. Additionally, poverty rates in these regions are incredibly high — another risk factor for civil outbreak. Then social networking served as catalyst by allowing these young, impoverished people to see the better lives being denied them by exploitative tyrants.

U.S. officials should also have foreseen the resulting impact on global oil prices. Price spikes are not new. Over the past 40 years, our energy policy has consisted of a patchwork of popular illusions (ie. energy independence) and political pork (ie. ethanol subsidies). For two of those decades, our leaders have maintained a self-imposed embargo on exploration in the Outer Continental Shelf and coastal plain of Alaska. As a result, many U.S. lawmakers have railed against rising imports but failed to take easy steps to limit their growth. (Politicians excel at cognitive dissonance!)

The time is ripe for going down another road instead of repeating mistakes of past energy policies. Most credible analyses conclude that over the next two decades oil consumption will grow not grow much over current levels because of advances in efficiency and fuel technology. Such advances will help curtail imports; in the Energy Information Administration’s Outlook, analysts estimate that 2035 imports will be about 6% lower than they are today. They could be lower than that.

America remains rich in hydrocarbons and almost certainly can increase oil production by two million barrels a day by the end of this decade. Opening up coastal waters and Alaska to exploration and production is an essential step to achieving that goal. States along the East Coast want to explore in their waters — a move that would also help to ease their financial problems. Renewed drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, including the eastern Gulf, would add over 400,000 barrels a day in production.

History should have taught our federal politicians that the search for alternatives to petroleum is neither easy nor quick. Yet, some keep pushing dubious fast fixes and in the process waste time and money. President Obama shows no interest in either renewed exploration in the Gulf or anywhere else even when faced with the prospect of oil prices in excess of $100 and gasoline at or over $4 per gallon.

This indifference suggests that he will likely blame price swings our “addiction” on foreign oil and hope that buyers shift to small, high-mileage cars and hybrids, including plug-ins like the Chevy Volt. If this comes to pass, the administration would put the economy back in jeopardy and harm those who can least afford higher energy prices in pursuit of a flawed green ideology.

This article appeared in the Houston Chronicle’s weblog FuelFix on February 28, 2011.

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