Last week, crude oil futures traded at nearly $140 a barrel for deliveries in July. The stock market tumbled in response to the record price.
Meanwhile, the cost of motor fuel is consuming nearly 6 percent of a family's monthly income. Many people are making difficult financial choices to absorb that blow. Mass transit ridership is up. Drivers are making a conscious effort to consolidate errands to conserve gasoline. They're looking to their leaders for answers.
President Bush has called on Congress to lift restrictions on oil shale leasing in the Green River basin of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. He also called for an end to bans on offshore drilling and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
Much of this agenda is controversial. Utah's congressional delegation is squarely behind lifting restrictions on oil shale leases on public lands in northeastern Utah, although there have been three failed attempts to repeal the existing moratorium.
There is great public pressure to take steps to curb gas prices but it is questionable whether drilling or exploring in sensitive areas will have much effect on world oil prices. The weak dollar, demand in China and India and market speculation will continue to drive up the cost of oil.
None of the drilling or exploration areas targeted by Bush would be drilled or mined, in the case of oil shale, without a fight. In some cases, environmentalists would lead the charge. But in others, state-level politicians are opposed to energy extraction activities that could potentially harm the environment.
Research by Shell Exploration & Production Co. is under way in western Colorado to determine if oil shale is commercially viable and whether shale oil can be extracted without polluting groundwater. The results of this work will not be known for at least two years.
There's a huge difference between what Bush describes as 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil and small experimental operations. Oil companies are also dogged by the lack of a regulatory framework for oil shale development, according to a recent Denver Post report.
Critical questions remain regarding how much water is needed for large-scale shale oil production. The tri-state area has precious little water. The water supply could be further limited if a Colorado entrepreneur is successful in building a 400-mile, $4 billion pipeline from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the Colorado Front Range.30 comments on this story
Even if regulatory, environmental and technology issues could be resolved quickly, it would take several years for commercial oil-shale extraction to begin. Interior Assistant Secretary Stephen Allred testified to the Senate Energy Committee in May that it would be 2015 before extraction could begin.
There are no quick fixes to the world's oil supply problem. Nor is seeking more hydrocarbons a solution to the nation's dependency on imported oil, considering the growing competition for available supplies from India and China. The solution lies in meaningful conservation measures and research on vehicles that are not fueled by petroleum products.