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(The Hamilton Spectator – June 12, 2004)

HAMILTON, CANADA ✦ Back in Hamilton from our most recent work stint in Yemen, I see a litre of Coke is now cheaper than a litre of unleaded.

In fact, since Jean likes to shop around for gas prices she can live with, sometimes on empty, I’m worried I might soon have to push the car.

It seems that Saudi Arabia, old and shaky as the kingdom is, has us all by the family jewels. It knows that North Americans are addicted to their oil like a drunk to his bottle. Yes, the oil gods have granted two-thirds of the world’s proven reserves to Saudi and a few neighbours. Hardly seems fair.

And if the experts are right, over the next two decades, rising worldwide energy demand means that OPEC’s market share — and power — can only increase.

Needless to say, without that oil, western economies will sputter dead. We can offer military and political goodies, from the Yanks, that is, to protect our interests; and rile extremists who kill so-called infidels, like the 22 expatriate oil workers recently murdered in Saudi’s Khobar region.

But we still get ripped off when prices are kept above true market value. The Economist says OPEC has likely bled $7 trillion extra from North Americans since the 1970s.

Remember the 70s? That was when OPEC really whipped us good and we all bought Ford Pintos. They had great gas mileage, except for when their tanks exploded and burned that last fillup.

But this is like complaining about the weather without doing much about it. There’s a better way. Bikes, for one, would help cut traffic that’s been the bane of city life since the streets of ancient Rome jammed with carts and oxen.

We could be more like Bernie, my Aussie buddy in Yemen who’s recognized in Sana’a by the Palestinian flag (for security) that he flies from his bike. He just organized the Great Sana’a Bike Ride to help battle gridlock.

Sana’a has ballooned from 50,000 to an estimated one million in 30 years. Some 290 cycled the city’s perimeter, though none were gals. Riding a bike isn’t socially acceptable for them. Yet.

But if we’re really in love with our cars, what about finding new ways to run them? Radically new ways. Bioethanol and hydrogen fuel cells are options. But despite our sky-high gas taxes, politically, nobody’s pushing very hard for research. Seems energy research companies are weighed down by their billions in oil assets.

I personally prefer water. In fact, 15 years ago in St. Thomas, where I started in the newspaper game, green as Kermit, my first reporting assignment was to trot off to see local inventor Garry Sutherland. Garry believed he had found a safe and cheap way to break water into its atomic elements of oxygen and hydrogen, both of which burn.

Patiently going through the Periodic Table, for years, one day Garry apparently found the magic compound combination. “I phoned (my wife) Mary and cried like a baby,” he told me. “I found it. I found it.”  Then, besides trying to convince folks he didn’t need psychiatric care, Garry tried to market what he called Aquaburn.

It put him on the national speaking circuit. And it convinced me that this journalism thing would be a blast. My first story: Water burns. My next: Global hunger is solved. The Pulitzer beckoned.

Think of the impact. That hungry furnace? Just add water. Your Hummer has poor fuel performance? Who cares? Add more water. Air pollution? Gone. And so long Saudi.

In fact, as owner of one-fifth of Earth’s fresh water, Canada becomes the planet’s new fuel mecca. We’d have everyone over the barrel. And we could fill it with our deep surplus of you-know-what.

But nothing came of Garry’s find. A couple of years after I met this elderly gentleman, his secret, whatever it might have been, went with him to the grave.

Granted, the whole thing seemed a little off-centre. Then again, initially, so did most of the great innovations that made the 20th century what it was.

No, it seems to me we could use someone like Garry right about now. Because honestly I don’t want to push the car.

About Thomas Froese