When the price of gasoline rises, so does political demagogy, especially during an election year. Frustrated drivers, infuriated by the spinning numbers that denude their wallets at the pump, understandably want to believe the loudmouthed candidate who promises cheaper fuel if only the magic of the marketplace is freed from environmental safeguards, bureaucratic regulations and burdensome taxes. Even an obvious charlatan like Newt Gingrich can get a little mileage by claiming he will fill their tanks for $2.50 a gallon, or that the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to transport tar-sand petroleum from Canada to Mexico for export, will somehow reduce prices here.
Yet America has already tried the cure prescribed by Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and the Republicans in Congress. Under the Bush administration, Dick Cheney worked in secrecy with the oil industry to remove all obstacles to domestic drilling, regardless of the cost to the air, water, land, and wildlife, not to mention the Treasury. No doubt Cheney and his cronies are gratified by the results, which include increasing production, spectacular profits, and less dependence on foreign resources, as well as spreading environmental degradation.
What the oil boom has not brought so far is a reduction in consumer prices, now approaching the same level as during the summer of 2008, before the economic crash. Worldwide recovery has meant a return to rising prices — mitigated only by trends toward energy conservation, urban revival, and fuel economy. In those hopeful signs may be found the only reliable escape from the global energy spiral.
Certainly Barack Obama seemed to understand that survivable future would require us to move from carbon-based energy to cleaner sources derived from the sun, wind, waves, and biomass — and most importantly, in the short term, many modes of conservation. As president he has spent significant capital toward those ends, both rhetorically and in his budgets, while pragmatically supporting and even extending Cheney’s “drill baby, drill” program. As the New York Times reported on Wednesday, the combined effects of increased domestic production and lower fuel consumption are substantially diminishing U.S. dependence on OPEC oil.
So why do consumers continue to pay more and more, with no relief in sight? The simple answer is that oil and gas respond to a world market that demands more and more oil to power growing economies abroad where people want to drive cars, eat meat and imitate the wasteful, polluting and ultimately dangerous lifestyle of the West — even as Western nations seek to reduce those harmful patterns.
Drilling everywhere may please the corporate patrons of Gingrich and Romney, but it won’t reduce gas prices here unless the world economy slumps again. The technologies that produce more oil from old fields here are highly damaging to the environment, ruining and depleting scarce water resources that will eventually leave many places uninhabitable. The unprecedented heat wave now scaring scientists here and abroad is a clear warning against the hubris of the oil lobby and its political echoes.
Many cities are already embarked on the pathway out of our enslavement to oil, by reducing fuel consumption, rebuilding transit, and encouraging conservation, clean energy, and smarter development patterns, all of which create far more employment than the oil boom ever will. The president hasn’t hindered oil production, as his opponents claim, but he hasn’t abandoned his commitment to a secure and healthy future — and he must not.