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March 5, 2008 12:37 PM

GAO Report on Energy: Back to the future, circa 1973

Posted by Angel Gonzalez

Oil has hit $104 a barrel - finally breaking the inflation-adjusted historical record set by the oil shock that began in the late 70s. And like in that difficult decade, the twin specters of inflation and recession, rarely seen in the same room, are rising together to haunt the U.S. economy.

Now the Government Accountability Office tells us that our energy mix is essentially the same it was in 1973, despite a $58 billion federal investment in researching energy technologies. In a report released today, the agency says renewable energy has risen barely one percentage point to represent 7 percent of our total energy use. Fossil fuels account for 85 percent of the total, down from 93 percent three decades ago. The only sector that grew was the nuclear one, which, after a flurry of atomic plant construction in the 1970s, now represents about 8 percent of our energy consumption.

Part of the reason that the $58 billion didn't alter our energy diet is that it wasn't invested consistenly. While the government ramped up spending during the oil crisis of the 1970s, investment in renewables dropped to a trickle when crude prices fell in the 1980s and 1990s. Federal research began growing anew in this decade as oil prices rose again, but the agency still thinks the department's R&D spending is not hefty enough. Only a coordinated effort between legislators enacting new rules and standards, along with private sector and international investment - an alliance cemented by the fear of ever-more expensive crude - will be powerful enough to diversify our energy use, says the report.

"Otherwise, without sustained higher energy prices for our current portfolio, or concerted, high-profile federal government leadership, U.S. consumers are unlikely to change their energy-use patterns, and the U.S. energy portfolio will not significantly change," the report says.

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