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Drake’s Folly Becomes Washington’s Folly

For decades presidents and Congress have failed to seriously address energy issues.

John E. Peterson’s expertise flows from his unique vantage point. A grocer, soldier and congressman, he was born and raised in Titusville, Pa., the western Pennsylvania farm town where Col. Edwin Drake sank an oil well in 1859. “Drake’s Folly,” it was called, but it was soon producing 25 barrels of oil a day, the opening page in America’s dependence on oil. The first price shock soon followed as the cost of oil rose to $25 a barrel (more than $500 in 2006 dollars).

A century and a half and two oil price shocks later, Peterson, R, who has become one of Congress’ top energy experts, picks up the story. “This country is going to be in an energy crunch for a number of years, and there’s going to be pain felt. We’re going to lose middle-class jobs. We’re going to lose in­dustries out of this country because they can’t afford to be here, no matter what we do, because we’ve waited too long,” he says. “Americans this winter and the winters ahead are just plain going to struggle to drive their cars and heat their homes.”

The numbers, as compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, are stark: Since 1975, U.S. energy consumption has grown 40 percent, while U.S. oil production has dropped 32 percent and oil imports have more than doubled. Globally, a tight oil market is getting tighter. Even though reduced driving and a slowing economy in the United States this year produced the largest half-year drop in consumption in two decades, it was more than offset by increased consumption in China and India.

So tight is the global market that oil prices, which averaged $72 a barrel in 2007, are projected to average $119 this year and $124 in 2009. Heating oil prices are expected to be 31 percent higher this winter, natural gas prices 22 percent higher. Average gasoline prices—already $2.81 a gallon last year—are expected to rise to $3.65 this year and to $3.82 next year.

Such increases highlight the real cost of political gridlock in Washington. Drake’s Folly has become Washington’s Folly. For all of the talk of hybrids, hydrogen, synthetics, offshore drilling and solar and other alternative energy sources, the nation remains addicted to fossil fuels.

For older Americans, many on fixed incomes, theirs is a world of inflation and higher energy prices, faltering home values and retirement finances, and soaring health care costs. Winter heating prices have nearly doubled in some parts of the country. Peterson’s dismay reflects the failure of presidents and Congress for 28 years to seriously address energy issues. “If I was a citizen back home, knowing just a fraction of what I know now, I would be one angry citizen.”

It’s late, but state leaders like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, of California and Gov. Bill Ritter, D, of Colorado are responding with initiatives to improve gas mileage and reduce citizens’ carbon footprints. Gas and oil man turned wind power advocate T. Boone Pickens has helped frame the debate with his ad campaign and rhetoric: “This is one emergency we cannot drill our way out of.”

It’s up to Peterson’s “angry citizens” to take the lead—not just by driving smaller vehicles or reducing the thermostat. They must also vote for candidates committed to confronting the challenge by working together and moving forward.


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