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US Energy Security Gaining New Attention After Attacks - 2001-10-18

The September terrorist attacks against the United States have intensified national discussion about energy security. The debate is reminiscent of 1970's, when the world petroleum cartel threatened oil supplies.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries embargoed oil in 1973 and raised prices sharply twice during that decade. Those oil shocks prompted more efficient energy use in the United States, development of alternative energy sources, and creation of a strategic oil petroleum reserve.

The recent terrorist attacks have raised the same issues because the United States imports more than half its oil, with nearly one-fourth from Persian Gulf states.

Senator Susan Collins says unless the United States acts, oil imports could rise to 70 percent in 20 years. "I shudder to think what could happen if we become so dependent, not just on foreign oil, but also on such an unstable part of the world," she said. "Our response to these attacks must therefore include a commitment to decreasing our reliance on foreign oil and diversifying our fuel supplies."

Among the means of doing so, Senator Collins argues that improving energy efficiency is the best.

But the incentive has diminished over the years with oil supplies steady and prices low. Because of this, and years of strong economic growth, U.S. energy use has soared.

For example, Richard Cowart, an energy consultant, points to the Bush administration projection that the United States will need 45 percent more electricity generation in two decades. "Rapid load growth is placing great strains on electric grids in many locations," he said. "At recent rates of growth, we are going to have to build enough infrastructure to supply the equivalent of nine new Californias by the year 2020." Mr. Cowart says much of this growth would be unnecessary if energy efficiency were improved.

He considers such efficiency an untapped reservoir of energy savings, one that should be pursued instead of a Bush administration plan to drill into a reservoir of oil in an Alaskan wildlife refuge.

Environmentalists say that drilling would threaten the wilderness and supply only a few months worth of oil. But the controversial plan has gained favor among U.S. lawmakers since September 11.

Yale University Law School energy policy expert Peter Bradford says more domestic drilling is necessary. As an incentive, he advocates surcharges on foreign oil to cut competing imports.

"That would make possible some increase in domestic production," he said. "We would still have to make difficult environmental choices about where. The other thing it would facilitate is much more efficient extraction of oil and gas from fields that were already known, a relatively environmentally benign way of getting an increase in domestic production."

Surely more acceptable to environmentalists is development of alternative fuel technologies, such as those that use the sun, wind, vegetation, and heat from the earth. The director of the U.S. government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Richard Truly, says the transition to alternative fuel use had already begun when the terrorist attacks occurred.

"I see the signs of this in many different areas, both in public policy and also in technology," he said. "I believe that renewable energy and energy efficiency are going to play a huge role. But we have a long way to go."

These are familiar issues. But Senator Collins says the terrorist attacks have added a new concern, the need to protect U.S. pipelines, generating stations, transmission lines, and other energy facilities from attack.

"We must build into our energy system an increased ability to withstand disruptions," she said. "Parts of our energy infrastructure are already strained to capacity. What would happen if terrorists were to strike transmission lines that barely suffice to get the job done now?"

The prospect of an assault on nuclear power plants is part of this specter. Peter Bradford of Yale, a nuclear-energy advocate, says he fears this will work against an expanded role for nuclear energy as one way to cut oil imports.

The energy debate reveals that, like the U.S. campaign to neutralize terrorism, achieving energy security is a complex challenge. But Richard Truly says it is essential to U.S. well being. "I believe that our energy security is national security," he said.