The most efficient short-term prescription for America's dependence on foreign oil is breathtaking both in its simplicity and in the odds against its being adopted: Replace the diesel-guzzling large trucks that carry 70 percent of domestic freight with expanded rail and barge service.
Yet for all the political and economic uproar the demise of long-haul trucking would generate, such stringent conservation of transportation fuel would only postpone a potentially catastrophic oil shortage in the U.S. by three decades, says Matthew Simmons, an investment banker who specializes in the energy industry.
Even so, that time could be precious, he says, if it is used to invest tens of trillions of dollars in the development of an energy alternative to fossil fuels that can be available by the time the world runs out of them.
Truckers can rest easy. No movement seems yet to have risen up against them. But Mr. Simmons has inspired a bipartisan band of congressmen, led by Western Maryland Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett and New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall, who are trying to convince their colleagues that intensive research in energy alternatives is overdue.
Experts can quarrel - and they do - about how soon world oil production will reach its peak, and start down a frightening path in which supply is increasingly inadequate to meet demand. But ignoring the problem, as the Bush administration and most of Congress have done so far, keeps the United States on what New York Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert called "a collision course with disaster."
Here are some facts:
# American oil production peaked in the 1970s; natural gas production in North America has also peaked; and coal remains abundant in the United States, but won't last through the century if consumption grows by 2 percent or more annually.
# The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 2 percent of the world's oil reserves yet consumes 25 percent of the world's energy output. Sixty percent of oil consumed in this country is imported.
Such dependence on foreign oil poses national security risks even if supplies remain plentiful; those risks are certain to grow as supplies dwindle. Mr. Simmons contends that even Saudi Arabia, once thought to have all-but-inexhaustible oil reserves, is at or near the peak of its production.
Renewable energy sources - including solar, wind and nuclear power, as well as plant-based fuels, such as ethanol - are too meager to pick up the slack if oil disappears.
Gasoline price increases, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, help some with conservation. But fuel is still too cheap, and the market too volatile to encourage private investment into alternatives.
"The United States government can help speed up technology," President Bush said Friday. But there's no indication he has in mind the same goal as the tiny Peak Oil Caucus: a federal energy project with the "magnitude, creativity and sense of urgency" with which the United States put a man on the moon.
Mr. Bush should listen to those lonely voices before it's too late.