No Magic Bullet for the Price of Gas

Political promises won't lower gas prices; it's time to for the U.S. to wean itself off of oil.

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Deborah Gordon is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As they ruminate at the pump, Americans may have finally figured out the new global deal on gasoline: there's no magic bullet to bring prices down as long as the United States remains hooked on oil.

No matter how many billions of dollars oil companies rake in, the world market, not individual oil producers, sets the price of oil. Likewise, there is little, if anything, U.S. presidents—or their political opponents—can do to ward off $4 per gallon gasoline.

The reality is that oil supply concerns in Iran, Nigeria, and other trouble spots married with heightened oil demand in China, India, and other burgeoning nations will largely determine what Americans pay for gasoline. We can drill doggedly in our own backyards, but the price of gasoline will remain more a matter of speculation over externally-driven factors than tapping new sources of oil at home.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gas prices.]

America is at an oil crossroads, emotionally and financially. We can continue griping about gasoline and maintain false hopes of controlling crude oil prices. Or we can face the truth, stop subsidizing oil with hard-earned taxpayer dollars, and abandon extreme efforts in search of new oil supplies. Surviving $4 gasoline depends on sipping oil and providing fuel substitutes, not subsidizing and promoting petroleum production.

As the world's largest oil consumer, home to a transportation system that is a whopping 94 percent dependent on oil, the United States is precariously positioned. Conventional thinking—the more we drill at home, the better off we'll be—is dangerously misguided. No matter where in the world oil is found, the price is tied to the global market.

Moreover, much of the heavier new oil supplies found in the western hemisphere yield diesel and fuel oil that is destined primarily for export markets. New heavier oils are not well suited for consumption by American cars and jets. So drilling closer to home will do much more to pad the oil industry's deep pockets than bring down prices at the pump.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Is Obama to Blame for High Gas Prices?]

Since business-as-usual isn't likely the answer, and may make matters worse, it's time for unconventional thinking.

America is desperately in need of an oil policy that reduces dependence on petroleum, regardless of the source. The more fuel efficient our cars become and the faster we diversify into new transportation fuels, the brighter our energy and economic future will be.

President Obama already set in motion the first part of the solution. Tomorrow's cars and trucks will consume less fuel than those they replace. And despite rising gas prices—or perhaps because of it—automakers' new vehicle line-ups contain some of the most fuel-efficient vehicles in industry history.

[Check out the U.S. News energy blog On Energy.]

In the next five years, new cars and trucks will use 20 percent less fuel per mile driven. And by 2025, new cars will average about 50 miles per gallon, nearly double levels initially mandated for 1985. Sticking to the president's plan, or even accelerating it, will be key.

But there is much more to be done. America can no longer rely on oil alone to fuel mobility. We need to step up the transition to oil alternatives by moving to hybrid-electric and electric vehicles, and using advanced biofuels.

Electricity can be generated by a diverse array of clean energy sources, leaving oil out of the power mix. And biofuels can be made from many different nonoil sources, including algae, grasses, woody crops, wastes, and various other nonfood feed stocks.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

High gasoline prices help motivate the shift away from oil. But a market transformation will take direct policy action, for example, through a price stabilizing oil security fee or other fiscal measures. Oil is entrenched in America. Moving away from perpetual oil dependence to a robust, diversified fuel system will take clear, enduring policy action.