To See It Coming Is Not Enough
By Marc Fisher
Right before the worst moments, a window of time opens just wide enough to let hindsight and regret rush in.
I should have hit the brakes two seconds earlier. Then: Crash.
I should have heeded the warnings to evacuate. Then: Flood.
I should have bought a hybrid. Then: $3 gas.
$3.09, to be precise, at a BP station on Connecticut Avenue in Montgomery County. You could watch the prices surge by the hour yesterday on http://washingtondcgasprices.com , a Web site that tracks the level of pain at local stations. As late as Tuesday evening, regular was $2.49 at a BP in Manassas. But by yesterday afternoon, even the usual cheap spots in Prince William County were leaping past $2.70. By the weekend, that will seem downright cheap.
News masochists -- folks like me who find perverse pleasure in looking back at stories that told us what was coming even though we were too dim to listen -- read reams of reporting on how New Orleans was destined to end up underwater, gas prices were certain to push toward $4 a gallon and the depletion of the planet's oil supply portends the end of suburbia.
In this information-saturated society, someone has made the case for any imaginable doomsday scenario. Some are nut jobs; some are seers.
James Jordan is one of those thinkers who tends to be annoyingly right. Jordan, a career Navy engineer, now runs an energy company in Oakton that develops ways to produce hydrogen fuel from coal. He also works on maglev technology, which uses magnets and electricity to propel trains at more than 300 mph.
Jordan, 68, has spent his working life watching politicians avoid the reality that we are too dependent on oil. It's so much easier to win votes by promising to lower taxes, ignoring aging infrastructure and leaving the mess for the next generation.
U.S. engineers and scientists haven't helped prepare for an era of declining oil because "we're so focused on health and national security," Jordan says. "We've neglected getting young people involved in how to keep our sewage plants and water supply going and fix our transportation system. Put out bids for subway cars, and all the bids come from Europe. I know -- my wife tells me this is boring stuff. But it's essential."
The hysterics say that as gas prices soar, American society will collapse. You can see a movie that pushes this line, "The End of Suburbia," tomorrow at the Old Town Theater in Alexandria. But history tells us that Americans drive no matter what the price at the pump. Still, public unhappiness over $3 gas will become visible. Voters may not have the answers, but they know how to throw the bums out.
Jordan believes that only such anger can pressure politicians to do what must be done: Use existing technology and push for new ways to boost energy efficiency. Pump money into renewable energy sources. And harden our infrastructure against weather and terrorism.
"We have the knowledge and materials to protect our water, power and sewage treatment facilities," Jordan says. "It's not going to be cheap, but it would produce enormous numbers of jobs. But it will only happen if the American public conveys that we want to be taxed for this priority."
Ha! The day Americans seek higher taxes, there'll be gators swimming in the streets of the French Quarter. Oh. Right.
Pieces of the solution are already floating around us. Plans to remake Tysons Corner into a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood show that we do not face a binary choice between endless sprawl and a forced return to 19th-century city living. Hybrid engines point toward enormous efficiencies.
The trendy scare story of the moment is peak oil, the growing consensus that we have used up about half the Earth's oil. The downside of the supply slope won't be pretty.
Environmentalist radicals see doom ahead. But even the suits of Big Oil agree on the underlying facts: "Simply put, the era of easy access to energy is over," David O'Reilly, chairman of Chevron, said this year. "We are experiencing the convergence of geological difficulty with geopolitical instability. . . . The time when we could count on cheap oil and even cheaper natural gas is clearly ending."
This weekend marks the beginning of that end. See you on the gas lines.