Oil and gasoline prices, low since 2008, are projected to rise again, rapidly returning our oil addiction to the national spotlight. Analysts say that oil prices are heading toward $100 a barrel, and former Shell Oil chief Carl Larry warns that we could see $5 a gallon gas by 2012. Inevitably, the price increases will inspire calls to reduce our dependence on oil, and Congress will consider some legislation to do just that. But as we try to make progress on oil alternatives, we need to bear in mind the lessons of low gas prices. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the same debilitating cycle of energy politics we've been trapped in for years.
Here's how that cycle goes: High oil prices make energy alternatives a top political priority, as they did before the 2008 price drop, but the urgency is suddenly forgotten when these prices collapse. That's not just short-sighted -- it's bad policy. Unless we can finally extend our national attention span beyond the latest price rise, the inevitable 2011 push for alternative energy isn't going to be any more fruitful than the last few times we tried.
Anyone who was buying gas in the early 1980s will recall when surging oil prices (reaching, in April 1980, a high of $103/barrel in today's dollars) prompted a variety of reforms, including President Carter's establishment of the Synthetic Fuels Corporation. But oil prices tumbled in the mid-1980s, national attention on energy issues dissipated, and President Reagan canceled the synthetic fuels program. In the early and mid 2000s, sustained price increases, hitting $145 a barrel in 2008, revitalized interest in how to promote alternatives to oil. But when the U.S. financial crisis pushed down oil prices in 2008, alleviating our oil dependence once again became a lower priority.