Crude prices speed search for alternatives

We lean against the rear fender of the automobile, watch the digital numbers on the gas pump climb and wonder who's getting rich off the skyrocketing price of gasoline. Yesterday, this station was selling gas at $2.37 per gallon. A day later, it's $2.47. And the newspaper reported Friday that analysts are telling us to brace ourselves for even higher prices because oil just hit a record $66 per barrel.

The convenience stores claim their prices aren't pumped up. The oil companies say they, too, are struggling with the high cost of oil. OPEC says its members are trying to control the flow of crude to keep the cost of oil down.

There's little doubt that most Americans realize countries in the oil-producing regions of the Middle East are raking it in. But those selling the oil at home also are doing pretty well:

From the ExxonMobil investor Web site:

" ... ExxonMobil's second quarter 2005 earnings increased $2,050 million and are the highest second quarter ever for the Corporation.

"Upstream earnings were $4,908 million, an increase of $1,062 million from second quarter 2004 reflecting continued strength in crude and natural gas prices."

(Note: When you're as big as ExxonMobil you tend to talk in terms of millions.)

Meanwhile, Americans continue to line up at the pump and begrudgingly pay $40, $50, $60 to fill it up.

Yet, we're still filling up. In past years, "energy crises" changed America's habits. Speed limits dropped. Patriots voluntarily turned their thermostat up from 75 to 78 to save on air conditioning. We rationed our energy consumption.

But that was during an energy shortage. Today there's no shortage as long as we'll pay $2.50 a gallon.

The point is we're complaining, but not doing anything about it. We're addicted to our vehicles (and other gas-powered machines). Nowhere is that more apparent than in car-congested metro Atlanta. And thus far, the fact that we're paying 50 cents more a gallon than we were a year ago hasn't changed our habits.

So if our habits won't change, our source of energy must.

The real answer lies in alternative fuels. The sooner we can cut our dependence on foreign oil, the sooner we can control our own fate.

n E85 is a blend of 85 percent ethanol made mostly from corn and 15 percent gasoline.

n Scientists are figuring out how to convert manure fertilizer into energy.

n Solar-powered cars use nothing other than rays from the sun and have no harmful emissions.

n Hybrid vehicles are more common but are still shunned for their lack of zip and high cost.

n The granddaddy of alternative fuel ideas - hydrogen produced from water - is still years, likely decades, away.

As gas prices skyrocket, more attention and progress will be directed at alternative fuels.

Imagine a world where oil is not king, where a renewable source of energy does not leave us dependent on foreign production, where emissions don't pollute.

We will get there. And "Eureka" will never sound more sweet.