Pandering at the Pump

Gas prices are so high the rural unemployed cannot afford to leave their houses to look for work. Filling a 20-gallon tank now costs more than $80. Working families are feeling the pinch-some choose between money for gas and basic needs like food, medicine, and rent. (Elevated fuel costs have contributed to skyrocketing food prices as well.) Americans won’t be taking to the highways for summer vacation as they have in the past. The Department of Transportation reports that Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April 2008 than they did in April 2007. Fuel prices likely will be a dominant election issue this fall. By the end of the year, some analysts say gas could hit $6 a gallon.

The spike in oil prices stems from a number of complicated factors. But the bottom line is that global demand for oil has outstripped supply. With the price of oil ever rising-at press time, a barrel of crude went for a cool $132-the temptation to drill for more domestic oil is awfully seductive. A man in Selma, Indiana, even dug an oil well in his backyard recently and has been pumping up three barrels a day. Oil companies are thinking the same way.

For years, oil companies have wanted to tap Alaska’s fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, pockets of oil in mountain states, and offshore oil reserves along the coasts. The industry, which has hauled in record profits of late, promises that more production will bring down prices.

Republican leaders, sensing a winning political issue in an election year, wasted no time putting the need for more oil production center stage. President Bush called on Congress to lift the 27-year federal ban on offshore drilling, and, in an impressive display of gall even for him, blamed high gas prices on congressional Democrats’ opposition to environmentally risky drilling projects. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, recently flip-flopped and endorsed offshore exploration. Texas Gov. Rick Perry wants more drilling, too, as does GOP presidential nominee John McCain.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, in her speech at the recent Republican state convention in Houston, claimed that ANWR contains enough oil to replace the United States’ annual imports from Saudi Arabia. She could be right: Under the most optimistic projections, ANWR could pump 1.4 million barrels a day-enough to replace what we bring in from the Kingdom-for perhaps two years. Hutchison neglected to mention that ANWR production couldn’t attain that level until 2028.

Newt Gingrich told the convention crowd that the solution to high gas prices is, “Drill here, drill now, pay less.” If only life were as simple as a political slogan. Drilling in ANWR and along the U.S. coastline would certainly provide more profit for oil companies. But these projects-while risking significant environmental pollution-wouldn’t lower gas prices in the here and now. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that oil from ANWR wouldn’t reach the U.S. market until 2018, and offshore drilling likely wouldn’t produce oil until 2030.

We must face a difficult truth. With global oil reserves on the decline, the age of cheap gas is over. While government can provide some short-term fixes-a redistribution tax on oil companies for subsidies to working families, for example-nothing will permanently reduce gas prices. Our only option is to invest heavily in alternative sources of energy-wind power, solar energy, clean coal, and even nuclear.

In other words, what we need is political leadership to formulate a realistic energy policy. Instead, Republican leaders once again give us only pandering. The real question is whether Americans will once again allow themselves to be conned by cheap slogans.

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Published at 12:00 am CST