August 19, 2008

August 19, 2008 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Washington running dry on a gas price fix

If only drivers could avoid high gasoline prices as easily as Congress has avoided doing anything about them.

Gas has dipped below $4 a gallon for the first time in months, but prices are still uncomfortably high and likely will stay that way through November. Thus, the pain at the pump will remain a big election issue. But now that members of Congress have gone home for the August recess and are asking voters to re-elect them, they'll have to explain why the single best energy idea--expanding domestic oil production--isn't even on the agenda.

Other measures--crackdowns on speculators, subsidies for alternative energy sources, tax hikes on oil companies, prohibitions on price gouging--have been subject to endless debate, leading to legislative proposals voted on by Congress. These ideas range from mildly useful at best to downright counterproductive at worst. Some, like the tax increases and price-gouging measures, are retreads of blunders that prompted shortages and gas lines in the 1970s. Thus far, none have passed.

A far better option is to open the vast oil-rich areas in the United States--both onshore and in our territorial waters--that inexplicably remain restricted despite skyrocketing prices. Polling shows that the public strongly supports opening the 85 percent of America's offshore areas currently off-limits--areas believed to contain 19 billion barrels. The same is true for promising onshore regions such as Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a tiny part of which is estimated to contain 10 billion more. Those 29 billion barrels--and past experience suggests we'll find far more--represents 48 years' worth of current imports from Saudi Arabia.

Increasing domestic oil supplies is an indispensable part of a sound energy policy. Americans get this, even if some in Washington don't.

Several bills, sponsored mostly by Republicans, seek to open these areas. Republicans also have sought to add these measures as amendments to other energy and non-energy legislation. Not only has the House and Senate leadership opposed these efforts, but they have used every tactic in the book to keep them from ever coming to a vote.

Amazingly, they have even shelved appropriations bills--the ones politicians love to fill with pork-barrel spending in an election year--rather than see pro-energy amendments tacked onto them. Some say a government shutdown is possible, if Republicans insist that the bills needed to keep federal activities going also allow new drilling and if the Democratic leadership refuses to go along.

Many Republicans even tried to block the August recess and keep Congress in Washington until an agreement was reached on increasing domestic oil supplies. They failed, but some refused to go home anyway and continued making their case.

It should be emphasized that, although Republicans are leading this charge, it isn't entirely a partisan issue. The strongly liberal Democratic leadership--Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and their like-minded colleagues are at odds with a number of pro-energy Democrats who would join Republicans and put a domestic energy bill over the top. This is why the leadership is stonewalling: They're desperate to avoid a they know they would lose.

Pelosi, Reid and other critics of expanded drilling are not without their excuses: There isn't enough new oil out there to make any difference, it will take too long to bring it to market, oil companies don't need new places to drill because they're deliberately under-producing in existing areas, and so on. None of these claims have merit, but those who do believe them should be willing to say so in an open debate over a drilling bill, and then proudly vote no on that bill. Instead, they have gone miles out of their way to avoid that debate and vote.

The reality is that the liberal Democratic leadership is too beholden to environmental extremists whose "drill nowhere" absolutism takes precedence over pump prices, no matter how high they may go. And this position has never been more out of touch than it is now.

So Congress has adjourned without adding a drop of new oil, and members are back in their states and districts where high pump prices remain a top concern. Don't be surprised if constituents angry over paying $70 per tankful give their representatives an earful.

Ben Lieberman is senior policy analyst for energy and environment in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ben Lieberman Senior Policy Analyst, Energy and Environment
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Energy and Environment

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