Big Oil Bush is running out of cheap gas

September 28, 2005|By JAY HANCOCK

We may not have an economic crisis yet. But you can tell there's a perceived political crisis when President Bush starts to imitate Jimmy Car- ter.

On Monday Bush asked all Americans to be "better conservers of energy" by skipping nonessential driving. "We can all pitch in," he said, according to transcription services.

Bush also urged federal employees to carpool or use mass-transit and said the government would shift electricity use to off-peak hours, reducing demand when the grid is stressed.

It was reminiscent of when former President Carter donned a sweater, sat by a fire and asked Americans to save energy by turning down thermostats during the natural gas shortages of the late 1970s.

And it was a striking nod to "demand-side" management from an administration that once seemed to believe voracious energy use is an American birthright, and the heck with consequences.

"Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it cannot be the basis of a sound energy policy," Vice President Dick Cheney said in 2001, as noted by numerous news organizations.

Asked the same year whether people should change lifestyles to alleviate an energy crisis, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "That's a big no," adding, "The president believes that it's an American way of life, and it should the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life."

Now former oilman Bush is asking Americans to give up a little slice of their way of life for the greater good, at least temporarily.

It's political crisis control as much as economic. With 2006 elections approaching, the administration has been blasted for appearing uncaring and aloof as millions suffer from storms and high gas prices.

Spouting an "all-for-one" line lets Bush fly the flag of communitarian sacrifice without anybody worrying he'll actually enforce it. (Carter, on the other hand, gave the impression he would personally inspect your thermostat AND the wool content of your sweaters.)

But the short-term vitality of the economy is threatened, too.

Consumer confidence has plunged, retail sales are weak, and high energy prices could lead to lackluster holiday shopping, which would be even worse for Republicans next year than the perception that they're detached corporate lackeys.

By my calculation oil prices have now increased enough since 2003 to take more than $100 billion out of Americans' pockets each year. At less than 2 percent of annual personal consumption of $8 trillion or so, that's not an enormous amount.

But it's getting to the point where it could make a difference, and people on both sides of the political aisle in Washington are starting to talk about remedies.

On Monday presidential spokesman Scott McClellan again urged Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, a move that would do little to change petroleum prices or make the country energy-secure but could irreparably sully our natural heritage.

People also are talking again about expanding coastal oil drilling, another risk that might cost more in environmental harm than it would deliver in energy benefits. Congressional Republicans are floating the idea of oil-refinery tax breaks for an industry that is making record profits, which doesn't make much more sense than Democratic proposals to expropriate oil-company assets through a "windfall profits" tax. (Another Carter-era idea.)

Some of the administration's short-term supply remedies make sense. Tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and temporarily relaxing shipping and environmental emissions rules can ease the temporary crunch, if that's what it is.

But long term, the biggest policy gains are to be had on the demand side - and not by encouraging cardigans and fewer drives to Wal-Mart. Stricter mileage standards would simultaneously reduce gas usage, improve the environment and promote safety by discouraging unnecessarily heavy vehicles.

A bigger gas tax would further discourage petroleum use, encourage alternatives and finance federal research on fuel cells and solar power. Together they might forestall a real crisis in the future, with even more opportunities for mischief.

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