President Bush's State of the Union comment that the United States is "addicted to oil" can be read as pure political opportunism. With ever more Americans expressing anxiety about high oil prices, freakish weather patterns, and abiding American ties to unsavory foreign oil potentates, it is hardly surprising that Bush sought to portray himself as an advocate of the development of alternative energy systems. But there is another, more ominous way to read his comments: that top officials have come to realize that the United States and the rest of the world face a new and growing danger a permanent energy crisis that imperils the health and well-being of every society on earth.
To be sure, the United States has experienced severe energy crises before: the 1973-74 "oil shock" with its mile-long gas lines; the 1979-80 crisis following the fall of the Shah of Iran; the 2000-01 electricity blackouts in California, among others. But the crisis taking shape in 2006 has a new look to it. First of all, it is likely to last for decades, not just months or a handful of years; second, it will engulf the entire planet, not just a few countries; and finally, it will do more than just cripple the global economy -- its political, military, and environmental effects will be equally severe.
If you had to date it, you could say that our permanent energy crisis began, appropriately enough, on New Year's Day, 2006, when Russia's state-owned natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, cut off gas deliveries to Ukraine in punishment for that country's pro-Western leanings. Although Gazprom has since resumed some deliveries, it is now evident that Moscow is fully prepared to employ its abundant energy reserves as a political weapon at a time of looming natural gas shortages worldwide. It won't be the last country to do so in the years to come. In just the few weeks since then, the world has experienced a series of similar energy-related disturbances:
* The sabotage of natural gas pipelines to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, producing widespread public discomfort at a time of unusually frigid temperatures;
* An eruption of oil-related ethnic violence in Nigeria, resulting in a sharp reduction in that country's petroleum output;
* Threats by Iran to cut off exports of oil and gas in retaliation for any sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council over its suspect nuclear enrichment activities;
* And as result of such developments, a series of mini-spikes in crude oil prices as well as reports in the business press that, if this pattern of instability continues, such prices could easily rise beyond $80 per barrel to hit the once unimaginable $100 per barrel range.
Vectors of Crisis
Events like these will certainly spread economic pain and hardship globally, especially to those who cannot afford higher transportation and heating-fuel costs. As it happens, though, these are not isolated, unrelated events. Think of them as expressions of a deeper crisis. Like the tremors before a major earthquake, they suggest the dangerous accumulation of powerful energy forces that will roil the planet for years to come.