Third Time's No Charm
By Richard G. Johnstone, Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

Philosopher, critic and contrarian George Santayana died 50 years ago. Many of his words still ring hauntingly true, though, such as “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” In a world more roiled by political, religious and ethnic turmoil than at any time since World War II, Santayana’s words echo down through the decades as wise words to follow.

The upheaval in the Middle East, the simmering war between Pakistan and India, our War on Terror past, present, and yet to come ... all are complex, the outcome of each has the potential for great progress or for cataclysm, and all will be protracted, a part of our lives for years, or decades, to come. With all these current events as jittery backdrop, it seems to me that we in the U.S. need to do as much as humanly and fiscally possible — and certainly more than we’ve been doing — to wean ourselves off Middle Eastern oil. And by wean, I mean crafting a carefully thought-out plan driven by a sense of urgency, then following the plan through until we have completely eliminated our purchases of oil from that most politically sensitive and confounding part of the globe.

All of us older than 40 remember at least hazily the oil crises of 1973 and ’79, in which embargoes sent oil prices soaring and gas lines extending around city blocks and down country roads. Recent headlines should therefore give us pause. Iraq temporarily cut off its oil exports to us a few weeks ago, and Iran and Libya threatened to do so. With events as tumultuous and as fluid as they are in the Middle East — with horror replaced by flickering hope replaced by horror seemingly being the daily mantra of news reporters and politicians — a look back at those two ’70s crises could help us forestall a future one.

Part of the solution, of course, is to rely even more on sources of oil from other parts of the world — Mexico, South America, and Russia, for instance. Another is to explore for additional sources of domestic oil supply, an issue members of Congress are wrestling with now. Yet another is to increase the fuel efficiency of our gas-powered vehicles. All of these are but temporary solutions, though, bridges to carry us toward an exciting solution that may lie only a decade or two in the future: cars powered by fuel cells.

Almost a dozen automakers — including such giants as Ford, General Motors, Daimler-Chrysler, Hyundai, Toyota, Honda and Volkswagen — are researching and in most cases developing vehicles that will run on hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Such vehicles not only would produce very little in the way of emissions, but the fuel source — hydrogen — is the simplest and lightest of the elements, a colorless, odorless gas that can be manufactured domestically. Are there obstacles? You bet, not least of which is the cost. Toyota says it will be the first major automaker to offer a fuel-cell car, when it puts its FCHV-4 model (which, we’ve read, will have a body style similar to Toyota’s Highlander SUV) on the market in Tokyo in the summer of ’03. Its sticker price will reportedly be 10 million yen (that’s $75,000 to you and me. Ouch.).

Yet, as with any emerging technology, unit prices will drop as consumer demand rises and mass manufacturing begins. When you consider that personal computers went from research lab to virtually every desktop in under 20 years, is it fanciful to think that a fuel-cell automobile could make the leap from great idea to garage in the same amount of time, perhaps even less?

And for those of us who remember 1973 and ’79 all too well, it would be folly indeed to ignore the lessons those two crises hold. A third oil embargo would be no charm; even less charming would be if we did not try our best to thwart it.

And if (or, we hope, when) we are able to wean ourselves off Persian Gulf oil, our nation and our President will be in a much stronger position to address any problems that may arise in the Middle East. Eliminating our need for what lies under the ground in the Middle East will surely strengthen our ability to help solve the vexing and very complicated problems that lie above the ground there.


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