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America's dependence on foreign oil has once again put its economy at risk during a war in the Middle East, but you won't find much sign of that at the gas pumps. With travel down - and thus less demand for gasoline - falling gas prices offer a short-term coverup for a long-term problem.

Experts don't expect the current military campaign in Afghanistan to have a major impact on oil exports from the Middle East, at least in the short term. Saudi Arabia, despite its public reticence in supporting this war against terrorism, has kept the tap open and prices stable. Middle Eastern oil-producing nations showed support in real terms by passing up a price hike and avoiding production cuts during this crisis.

But that could change if the war spreads to terrorist-friendly Iraq, still a major world oil supplier. And even though the United States has reduced its Persian Gulf imports from 23 percent of daily U.S. oil consumption a decade ago to 13 percent today, its energy supply is not immune to problems in a region that produces 18 percent of the world's oil and harbors by far the lion's share of the world's oil reserves.

The United States now imports most of its oil from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela, notes Guy Caruso, director of the Strategic Energy Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, he points out, "a problem in the Persian Gulf or another major oil-producing and exporting country quickly translates into higher prices and lower economic growth."

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. America can either increase its own domestic oil supplies by opening new oil fields, or decrease demand for oil through better conservation policies. But either way takes years. According to Caruso, even strict new automobile efficiency standards enacted today wouldn't take full effect until the nation's more than 200 million existing vehicles could be slowly replaced, and instant approval of new drilling in Alaska wouldn't deliver new oil for seven to 10 years.

That doesn't mean action shouldn't start. An energy bill - flawed as it is - remains bottled up in Congress, and the Bush administration's prewar attempt to formulate a national energy policy needs revisiting. Both the legislation and the policy are focused largely on increasing energy supplies, and provide far too little incentive for the conservation measures that ultimately would do far more to wean America off its dependency on foreign oil.

Finding new energy supplies and improving energy conservation must be important parts of a national energy strategy. America's relatively scant known oil reserves can't provide a long-term solution for a country so oil-hungry that imports have risen from 47 percent of daily consumption a decade ago to 60 percent today.

In the long term, other power sources or efficiency gains that reduce the use of oil-produced power offer more promise. Conservation regulations that both cut uses and spur technology development also can boost security and help the environment, and they ought to be a much larger part of a national energy program that has only gained importance since Sept. 11.

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