Perhaps for the first time, at least since the gasoline shortage of the mid-1970s, Americans are realizing a serious energy/power crisis faces the United States and its citizens.
Millions of Americans have been shocked by the home heating bills they received this month. They could not believe their bills were so high. Many thought there must be a mistake, and they flooded phone lines asking utility companies for an explanation.
Homeowners, aware of the possibility of higher costs, turned down thermostats. Institutions such as Kansas University lowered temperatures in classrooms and offices. Officials at home repair stores offered tips on how to tighten up houses to reduce fuel usage. But even with these actions, they were shocked when they opened their energy bills. Throughout the country, the cost of energy was at, or near, the top of most people's concerns.
News reports from California told of the state being in a critical and vulnerable position because it was close to being unable to meet power demands. Brown-outs were forecast, and there was the threat the state's major power suppliers might be forced into bankruptcy. California's governor talked of the state taking over the privately owned companies.
Some suggested the current energy situation was compounded by colder-than-usual weather conditions, but others point out that December and early January temperatures had returned to the more normal weather patterns of several years ago.
What's to be done?
First, it is apparent that little, if anything, has been done by the Clinton administration during the past eight years to make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil. There has been a lot of talk, but little action. In many cases, what action was taken placed added restrictions on new oil and gas exploration and development of domestic supplies.
Second, America is growing, and energy demands are going to soar. The U.S. population today is close to 280 million with some projecting a total of nearly 500 million within 30 to 40 years.
Various efforts are sure to be tried to control or lessen energy consumption, but this will not make a major dent in consumer demands. Automobile manufacturers are being told to design autos and trucks that have far greater fuel efficiency. Appliance-makers are being told the same, and higher costs are sure to encourage citizens to be more careful and conservative with their energy demands. Such actions include turning off lights in empty rooms, decreasing their heating and air-conditioning use, limiting travel, perhaps outlawing fuel-guzzling cars and trucks, and many other initiatives.
These are well-motivated efforts, but in the face of millions more Americans, more homes, more offices, more industry and more business, new energy demands will far surpass any savings generated by conservation.
So what can be done? The incoming Bush administration faces a tremendous challenge. Unfortunately, any remedial action undertaken by the Bush team is likely to anger a wide cross-section of Americans, and an increase in domestic oil production cannot be accomplished overnight.
It might be that energy rationing, in one form or another, could be imposed throughout the country something like it was in World War II.
It is obvious oil and gas exploration must be encouraged. Geologists note that many oil-rich areas exist along the U.S. coast and in the wilds of Alaska. Can exploration and drilling in these areas be done without harming the environment? And will environmental zealots allow such efforts?
When does a critical national need for more energy supersede the good intentions of those who do not want any environmentally sensitive areas invaded and/or damaged by oil and gas exploration?
What about the development of more coal-fired power plants? Are current federal and state emission controls so stringent that power companies are hesitant to invest in badly needed new power generating facilities? There is ample coal to fire such plants, but the cost of using coal is becoming so high that power company officials question the soundness of such investments.
It has been years since a nuclear power plant has been built in the U.S. Nuclear energy could make a tremendous step toward meeting this country's needs, and it is clean and inexhaustible. However, there is a public fear of nuclear plants. It's likely energy shortages, higher fuel costs and many inconveniences will have to occur before the public accepts the need of nuclear-powered plants.
Solar energy is possible, but it will take years to develop it and more time for it to be accepted and become a significant addition to the U.S. energy pool. The same is true of wind power or the use of ocean tides and other similar efforts.
The need is now, and it is going to get bigger. Oil-rich countries in the Middle East have Uncle Sam over a barrel, and just a few days ago, they announced plans to cut back their production.
It is unfortunate and a tremendous disservice to this country that the Clinton administration did so little to address and try to develop a sound, forward-looking national energy policy. The situation did not develop overnight. It has been building for years, and it is wrong to place all the blame on Clinton, but he and his associates could have sponsored actions to get something started to lessen U.S. dependence on foreign supplies and encourage new oil and gas exploration and development in the United States.
This was not to be, however, and President-elect George W. Bush now is faced with the serious task a truly critical task of drawing plans for an effective energy policy. The United States needs a policy that will keep this country free and independent of the whims of foreign leaders and one that will open up new supplies of oil and gas that will allow this country and its citizens to grow and prosper in the years ahead.