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Originally published Wednesday, September 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Crises may have bright side

I was driving around recently, feeling depressed about the hurricane, when I stumbled on one of Katrina's legacies right here in Seattle...

Seattle Times staff columnist

I was driving around recently, feeling depressed about the hurricane, when I stumbled on one of Katrina's legacies right here in Seattle.

And it gave me hope. Near University Village, in Laurelhurst, there's a gas station that sells biodiesel, that alternative car fuel made from vegetable oil.

For the first time, the biodiesel was selling for less than the regular petroleum diesel.

Big deal, you say? It might be. That this boutique fuel used mostly by hard-core greens and elitists would become the lower-cost alternative was unthinkable right up until the moment it happened.

Two months ago, biodiesel cost 75 cents a gallon more. Two years ago, it cost $2 a gallon more.

High gas prices are not a happy event. Neither are some of the reasons they're high, like the war and the hurricane. But could it be that these crises are also golden opportunities to change?

For my entire life, the wisdom has been there's no way to break our addiction to cheap oil. Except what if it isn't cheap anymore?

"Now, let me see ... " writes Martin Tobias, CEO of Seattle Biodiesel, a local refinery company, on his Web site. "I pull up to the pumps ... [and] one pump is more expensive, harms the environment, causes wars, and sends money to another country. The other pump is cheaper, very easy on the environment, domestically produced and supports American industry and farmers. Which one would you choose?"

Even normally warring Democrats and Republicans are jumping at this one. State lawmakers from both parties, citing the "political climate" created by a storm 2,500 miles away, have rolled out plans to use crops from Eastern Washington to make green fuel for cars and home furnaces.

Growing our own fuel is no panacea. It's a small thing, really, that by itself won't solve our energy woes.

But it's a chance to start going in a new direction. It's a little sign of life in the national rubble pile.

Another is that the hurricane seems to have primed us to rebuild the nation's now-wrecked fiscal house.

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Polls show huge majorities of Americans are willing to make sacrifices to pay the Gulf Coast cleanup bill, either through tax increases or spending cuts.

With the size of our deficits, the reality is blindingly obvious: We need both.

Will our politicians ask us to make any sacrifices? Will we finally pay our own way? Or will we continue to push our responsibilities off on the next generation?

Harsh as it was, maybe Katrina was a needed smack upside the nation's head.

Or maybe we're too thick-skulled to notice. It was exactly four years ago that opportunity bloomed in the wreckage of another horrific tragedy. Most of the world regarded us with enormous goodwill, and seemed ready to be led by us in a cooperative, global fight against terror.

We squandered that chance. What will we do with this one?

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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