American memories are so short that today's energy crunch is "big news" causing people to run around waving their hands in the air asking for "new" ideas. What Americans forget is that after the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the nation invested billions in developing advanced energy-efficient machinery, alternative energy systems and products, and research into even more fuel-efficient means of transportation and technology.
Unfortunately, then the country elected Ronald Reagan as President. Reagan, whose closest friend and campaign supporter was a major oil industry baron, saw to it that America's fleeting experiment with weaning itself from petroleum-based energy was buried for good and for aye. Until now.
Even more unfortunately, when again the costs of energy cripples American economic and social well-being, an oil industry-promoting Republican is in the White House.
What a recipe for disaster. And a disaster is ensuing.
Four years ago, the George W. Bush White House saw this energy crunch coming. The White House responded with a bizarre initiative to promote hydrogen power as the next best alternative to oil. Most Americans don't realize that was a cynical diversion, for wide-scale adoption of hydrogen is at least a decade or more away - and even then is a doubtful realistic choice.
Hydrogen requires a huge amount of electrical energy to create. That means the real cost of this fuel is increased by the cost of the oil- or coal-fired plants to generate it. Some savings!
Further, hydrogen is terribly dangerous. It is highly-explosive. There is almost no containment vessel made that can keep the gas from leaking, because hydrogen atoms are so tiny they literally pass through the molecules of the material used to hold the gas.
In the meantime, America's massive investment of more than 30 years ago - an investment in learning about effective alternative fuels and energy systems - has been entirely thrown into the trash heap of history.
For example, one of the most effective of all energy development programs of the 1970's was advanced solar systems. Government subsidies at the federal, state and local levels created a once-huge solar water heating products industry. At first, the subsidies led to a terrible sheaf of scandals as fast-talking salespeople tricked homeowners into very bad contracts for the installation of really poor equipment. By 1980, those scams had been unmasked, quality product designs had risen to the top of the market, and several extremely innovative new solar water heating designs were poised to come onto the market.
But then Reagan was elected. By 1982, the government promotion programs were over and the solar water heating industry almost vanished. The best of the new ideas, driven by a growing marketplace, were shelved and never entered production.
Similarly, after almost a decade of forced development of low-emissions, energy-efficient automobile designs, the 1980's saw a return to big engines, big cars, and poor fuel economy. The Reagan Administration was openly hostile to legislation attempting to improve the "Corporate Average Fleet Economy" ( CAFE) standards that had forced American car makers to produce better vehicles. Development work on cars that used electricity, methanol, compressed natural gas, and propane as fuels had been supported by federal grants until Reagan entered office. That support came quickly to an end.
One last lingering effort was made starting in 1990 to determine the practical value of alternative fuels. The "CleanFleet Project" was launched using FedEx trucks in Los Angeles, and lasted four years. it studied the environmental, mechanical, and economic effects of using not only gasoline, but also "reformulated gasoline," methanol, propane, natural gas, and electricity for operating the trucks over two years in the LA basin. This immense study laid the groundwork for potential future use of those fuels by giving auto manufacturers and public policy specialists the data they needed to look toward a new approach without gasoline in the tank.
But that information was also shelved. The current Bush Administration has not even bothered to look at the results when it decided to adopt hydrogen as its preferred alternative fuel - knowing that those other fuels are immediately available, relatively cheap, and adaptable to existing auto and truck designs. Hydrogen, of course, is none of those things.
If America wants to get off the petroleum teat, it does not need to completely rebuild its infrastructure, economy and way of life. Some of that is absolutely desirable, of course, but the country does not need to endure terrible dislocations in the process. the information is available for the nation's investment responding to past crises.
The problem is, the country needs both to remember that investment and learning lesson - and to remove Republicans from making decisions about energy resources.