Get serious about energy

America is a nation of addicts. We’re not talking about pot or crack or smack, we’re talking crude, black gold, Texas Tea.

Except most of it isn’t pumped out of Texas anymore, it flows from outside our borders, millions of barrels a day.

And therein lies the larger problem. Because as every crack head knows, it’s not just the dope you’re addicted to, it’s the pusher.

So here we are, the greatest nation in the history of our little planet, held hostage by our dependency on foreign oil. And billions of dollars are leaving our shores destined to fuel the economies of countries that aren’t exactly in love with us.

This does not paint a pretty picture for the future.

During his state of the union speech this week, President Bush underscored this dilemma. It was not the first time he has made energy independence a theme during a national address, not is he the first president to do so, but that doesn’t diminish the message.

“Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy,” he said. “And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.”

Bush announced an Advanced Energy Initiative at the Department of Energy that would increase funding for clean-energy research by 22 percent. There are two prongs to this thrust: more environmentally friendly ways to generate electricity and the development of ethanol as an alternative to gasoline for our cars.

It is the latter that most directly addresses the nation’s addiction problem.

Very little electricity is generated by oil (less than 3 percent). Flip on the light switch and odds are there is a coal-powered plant somewhere on the other end of the copper wire. If not coal, then a nuke or natural gas.

Cars and trucks, they’re the big burners of petroleum. You can use ethanol (a kind of alcohol made from plants) to dilute gasoline, but that doesn’t really solve the problem: Gas that’s cheaper than designer water offers the marketplace too few incentives to build and buy smaller, lighter cars that conserve fuel.

In Europe, as noted in this space in the past, the price at the pump is about double because of taxes. Which is why you see smaller cars getting better gas mileage over there.

The president said he wants to employ new technologies “to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.”

I’m not sure where he got that date, but you have to admire his chutzpah.

Maybe I’ll try that at home sometime. Imagine the conversation:

SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED: “Oh, Jeff, when are you going to clean out the garage?”

ME: “Well, dear, glad you asked. You see I’ve developed an Advanced Garage Cleaning Initiative that, if all goes according to plan, will culminate in the year 2025.”

SWMBO: “Well. In that case, I think I’ll grab the credit card and go shopping. See you when I can park in the garage again.”

ME: “Take about an hour, dear.”

Or something like that.

Here’s a better idea, a friendly amendment to an otherwise worthwhile proposal:

John F. Kennedy told Congress in 1961 man would land on the moon before the end of that decade. Eight years later, Neil Armstrong was blowing his most famous line as he stepped onto the lunar surface.

If this nation can put a man on the moon in eight years, surely we can figure out how to make cars that don’t guzzle like a dehydrated wino.

Let’s get serious. Let’s start by upping the ante at the pump to encourage the purchase of cars with better fuel economy. Then let’s mandate much tougher mileage standards for all cars and trucks.

Yes, certainly, let’s also explore alternatives. Shale oil, ethanol, whatever. But until the federal government acts to stimulate change, market forces will not get us there — not until it’s too late and the price of oil’s through the roof and we’ve made billionaires out of people who really aren’t our friends.

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