The current spike in oil prices sparked by unrest in the Middle East is not the first one to hit the United States. Traditionally, higher prices have prompted calls for American energy independence through alternative energy. But skeptics say such calls amount to little more than talk in a nation heavily dependent on cheap foreign oil.
The latest increase in U.S. fuel prices was driven by unrest in the Middle East. In the past, Americans have faced higher energy costs following hurricanes that disrupted oil supplies; after major oil spills; or during energy embargoes by the OPEC oil cartel. Each spike focused attention on America’s dependence on foreign oil.
Thomas Wallin, president of Energy Intelligence, an energy information company, says few people have noticed that the Obama administration devoted more than $80 billion towards alternative energy research and energy efficiency as part of the 2009 Recovery Act.
“But I think at a time that governments are trying to cut spending and austerity is sort of the word of the day, it gets very hard to tilt the whole playing field of energy in favor of alternatives, which is what you effectively need to do to make them come in faster,” noted Wallin.
The 2009 Recovery Act that funded President Obama’s energy initiatives has expired. And the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is trying to rein in government spending.
The director of market intelligence at the NASDAQ stock market in New York, Anu Sharma, says the current spike in oil prices will likely provoke a political debate.
“You’re going to hear people talk about trying to explore new areas for research and development, as well as drilling," noted Sharma. "That’s going to come up. And the other side of the debate; the alternative whole energy sector is going to rise up when it comes to solar and wind.”
But Thomas Wallin says America loses the political will to embrace a dramatic shift in energy policy when oil prices decline.
“We’ve been through these crises before in the past," noted Wallin. "There’s been a lot of plans and a lot of talk. And then, when things get easier, we’re suddenly not spending the money in that way; we’re not pushing those programs the way we were.”
As a result, if the past is any indication, Americans will likely rely on foreign oil until permanently higher oil prices force them to find alternative sources of energy.