It's not the oil

it's the oil sales

Energy bill: For this administration, more is always better than less.

March 10, 2002

THERE'S SO MUCH nonsense about oil that it just makes you wonder how people can lose track of the common sense on which Americans used to pride themselves.

Well, money, of course, plays a role.

This week, the Senate is going to take up the thorniest parts of a new energy bill. They have to do with drilling for oil in an Arctic wildlife refuge and setting new mileage standards for cars and SUVs. They're the kinds of things that attract a lot of attention, and tons of foolishness.

But let's leap ahead of the story for a moment.

There aren't enough votes to approve the Arctic drilling. Republicans will probably try to add it to the bill later, when it goes to a conference committee for reconciliation with the House version -- which was passed last year and does include drilling.

The proposed new mileage standards are more of a toss-up and are more susceptible to compromise.

But what is certain is that before this is done there will be plenty of tempestuous debate on both scores.

On both the oil drilling and the improved mileage standards, the Bush administration and its allies are making arguments that might seem simply peculiar -- if they weren't so hard to swallow.

Take the case for drilling: America uses too much imported oil, and national security demands that we tap this resource.

Let's look at this. A year ago, the White House said Arctic drilling was the only way to solve California's electricity crisis. Then that crisis inconveniently went away. Now we're told that it's the war against terrorism that requires us to go after the oil.

But it would take 10 years for that oil to start flowing. We could extract about 3.2 billion barrels, and it would take 50 years to get it all. In the context of the total world market that's hardly bigger than a statistical error.

Environmental activists, who want to make a big fight over this, have portrayed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the last pristine relic of the north. This causes some Alaskans to roll their eyes, because they do after all have a big state and a lot of it is pretty untrammeled.

Drilling advocates say that modern techniques would ensure against an environmental disaster. Experience at the Prudhoe Bay fields suggests that they are right just as long as you define disaster in apocalyptic terms.

There will be inevitable spills and there will be inevitable damage. And the likely benefits are awfully hard to pin down.

An easier way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil would be to require cars and trucks to get more miles for each gallon of gas. The bill before the Senate, in mandating an average of 36 miles to the gallon, would save more oil than the Alaskan refuge could ever possibly provide. It would also make driving cheaper and reduce air pollution.

The White House is completely opposed. It says that tighter standards would make American cars more expensive, reducing sales and jobs for autoworkers, and also would force cars to be lighter, turning them into death traps.

This second point is entirely cynical. Part of the carefully crafted appeal of SUVs is that they are big, heavy, industrial-sized cars in which you and your family are better protected from the craziness of the highways. But the fact is that SUVs have been shown to be alarmingly unstable vehicles, as dangerous to their occupants as they are to others. Moreover, Honda has released a study that shows that cars and SUVs can lose as much as 100 pounds with no discernible effect on safety.

And there's this news: Ford is already planning to sell a hybrid version of its Escape SUV, starting next year. It's just like the ordinary Escape, except it will go 40 miles on a gallon of gas. The technology is there; it can be done. Ford isn't laying off workers to do it, even though the hybrid Escape will cost more at first.

There is, unfortunately, a consistency in the administration's position. Emphasizing drilling over conservation makes perfect sense in the world of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Conservation is not what oil is all about. Every gallon that's saved means a gallon that someone hasn't been able to sell. Where's the fun in that?

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