US seeks rehab for addiction to foreign oil

Candidates pledge long-term strategies to end dependence on resource, continuing a debate hat began in the 1970s.

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WASHINGTON // There is a new enemy in the United States: oil. Actually, it is an old enemy, from the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo forced a spike in US petrol prices and the president, Jimmy Carter, unhelpfully urged citizens to turn down their thermostats and don sweaters. But as US residents have watched the price of petrol reach US$4 a gallon (Dh3.99 per litre), the national conversation about the dangers of the country's oil dependence - and what to do about it - has reached a fever pitch.

Both political parties have moved to seize the issue as their own, playing up the economic, environmental and national security implications of being, in the now famous words uttered two years ago by George W Bush, "addicted to oil". John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee to succeed Mr Bush as president, has outlined a broad energy plan that, among other things, aims to free the United States from its dependence on foreign sources of oil by 2025.

"America's dependence on foreign oil was a troubling situation 35 years ago. It was an alarming situation 20 years ago. It is a dangerous situation today," Mr McCain said in June in announcing the plan, called the Lexington Project after the New England town where the first shots of the War of Independence were fired. Barack Obama, his likely Democratic challenger, pledged something similar last week, saying the "single overarching goal" of his presidency would be to end the country's reliance on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela within a decade.

The addiction to foreign oil, he said, is "one of the most dangerous and urgent threats this nation has ever faced". The United States has long been talking about, if not doing anything to change, its addiction. In 1973, at the height of the energy crisis, Richard Nixon, then president, announced a plan that could easily roll off the lips of either of today's White House hopefuls: Project Independence. Its goal was national energy self-sufficiency - by 1980 (Time magazine dubbed the plan "impossibly visionary" at the time).

Since then, the national appetite for oil has only grown, with the United States purchasing more and more of the commodity from beyond its borders. The country now imports nearly 70 per cent of its oil, up from about one-quarter in 1970. The United States accounts for four per cent of the globe's population, yet consumes 25 per cent of the world's oil production. As in the 1970s, it took higher prices at the petrol pumps to spur action - or at least the call for it.

"There's nothing like getting hit in your pocketbook to wake up," said Peter Forman, founder of, a non-profit organisation in New York whose aim is to end US dependence on oil, both foreign and domestic. "I would say it's a mixed blessing," Mr Forman said of the high price of petrol. "While it's incredibly damaging to the economy and to individuals' budgets, at least from a long-term perspective, it is focusing people on the issue."

And people of all political stripes: Al Gore, the Democratic former vice president who won the Nobel Prize for his work on climate change, recently challenged the United States to switch to 100 per cent clean, renewable energy sources within 10 years. T Boone Pickens, a Texas businessman who became a billionaire in the oil and gas industry, announced a sweeping energy plan of his own centring around the benefits of wind energy. "I've been an oil man all my life," he said, "but this is one issue we can't drill our way out of."

Mr McCain and Mr Obama are likewise talking about many of the same issues: a system of cap-and-trade on greenhouse gas emissions; development of clean coal technologies; tax credits for green vehicles and flex-fuel technologies, which allow cars to run on multi-fuel engines. They may bicker on specifics, but they agree on the fundamental problem. "We already have the basics of consensus," said Keith Schneider of the San Francisco-based Apollo Alliance, a coalition of business, environmental, labour and social justice groups whose slogan is "Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Freedom from Foreign Oil".

"There are very few national conversations we have in the country in which we really pay attention," Mr Schneider said. "It reflects this sense of drift and unease and enfeeblement that Americans have about not just their country, but about their own family's well-being." Still, this is Washington. And while the issue's effect transcends partisan politics, it certainly is not devoid of them. Republicans on Capitol Hill have been protesting, with theatrical flourish, Congress's adjournment for summer break without a vote on offshore drilling (which they tout as a fix for expensive gas, even though nearly everyone agrees it will have no short-term effect on prices).

They gave speeches from the darkened House of Representatives chamber, with no live microphones or TV feeds, and called on the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to call members back for an emergency session. "Drill, drill, drill," they chanted. In the middle of it all, Mr Obama, who had opposed offshore drilling but seemed to be losing ground to his Republican challenge with that stance, changed his mind and decided to support some drilling after all - as long, he said, as it were part of a long-term energy strategy to one day get away from oil.