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The Future of Energy: Oil

04/08/10 7:55AM By Saleem Ali
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(HOST) This week, VPR's commentators have been weighing in on the future of energy. Commentator Saleem Ali says oil is likely to be part of that equation. Where the oil comes from is another matter.

(ALI) President Obama's plan to open parts of the Atlantic coastline to drilling has perplexed his critics and his supporters alike. Pundits are speculating with applause and cynicism. What could be the rationale behind this proclamation? It defies his environmentalist credentials while placating many of his conservative opponents.
 
The Wall Street Journal's Thomas Frank called the move a "master stroke," while David Roberts from the environmentalist web site grist.org dismissed the proclamation as merely "a show." Many environmentalists believe that this is just a strategic decision to get enough Senate votes for a bill on climate change. Whatever the motives, this move by the president deserves our attention.

Let's consider the argument which might unite left-leaning environmentalists and right-wing industrialists alike. The phrase "foreign oil" is a frequent rallying cry in this regard. Consider the email which was sent out by tycoon energy activist T. Boone Pickens to his minions, and I quote: "Army: We've got their attention and things are starting to move.... The Administration agrees with us....  Anything American to reduce our dependence on foreign oil."

The fear of foreign oil now permeates the heartland of America because it is presented by the political right as the reason why we are "soft" on radical states like Saudi Arabia. At the same time the left blames foreign oil as well, but for U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

Compelling as this unifying argument may be, let's step back for a moment and ponder.

First, not all foreign oil is created equal. Oil from Mexico and Canada collectively comprises our largest import source. Canadian oil from tar sands is also being touted as a "safe source" compared to the Middle East, but consider the environmental cost of extracting shallow desert oil from Arabia versus thick wetland tar from Alberta.
 
Second, importing oil might mean we have an opportunity to exert leverage on the states from which it is being extracted. The problem is that we have been reluctant to exercise that leverage. I would argue that Middle Eastern states would be even more reluctant to crack down on extremists if they had no economic relations with the United States - the world's largest consumer of oil.

The decision to extract and import oil or any other commodity must consider environmental and economic efficiency rather than sentimental calls to insularity.
 
As for the drilling issue in the Atlantic, it certainly deserves to be studied and explored - but with care and caution, and not at the expense of renewable energy efforts. To Drill or not to drill - that should be a question. But let's seek the answer with measured pragmatism rather than misplaced passion.

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Commentary Series: The Future Of Energy
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