More Silliness on the Hill

Science  12 May 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5775, pp. 813
DOI: 10.1126/science.1129466

There is something about gasoline that tempts certain people to pour it on a fire. The paroxysms of the U.S. Congress, in response to a price tag approaching $50 to fill the average automobile fuel tank, remind us that its desperate members will lunge at almost anything that might relieve constituent pain. In this respect, of course, they have no monopoly on foolishness; the White House is right in there with some questionable ideas of its own.

Consider the following list of seriously proposed solutions to this contretemps. First, give every consumer $100 as a makeup. That may pay for two fill-ups, but it will only add another tax-cut equivalent to the deficit and do nothing whatsoever to relieve the regressive character of high fuel prices. Second, mobilize the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Well, that's another transient fix, and even the president has pointed out that it probably shouldn't be used until things get really desperate—whenever that is. Finally, because environmentalists got together to block drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they are really responsible for the problem, so we should go ahead and drill there just to show them.

Naturally, there has also been an effort to identify evildoers so that Americans may take comfort in pointing to an external human source of the problem. Conservatives cast the blame on environmentalists, OPEC, the bad guys who are blowing up pipelines in Iraq, and the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez. Liberals focus on the “oil guys”: the corporate chieftains who met in secret with Vice President Cheney in 2001 to determine the administration's energy “policy” and reaped windfall profits; many then exited with mind-boggling separation payments.

CREDIT: IMAGES.COM/CORBIS

This political theater is missing a few essentials. First, gasoline prices are getting a little closer to what they really ought to be. Europeans still pay more than Americans do with few complaints, saving those for the war in Iraq or other serious matters. The oil company executives have surely gained from the recent price rise, but it's not clear that they caused it. Some of those well-rewarded CEOs did, after all, forecast the price increases and rewarded their stockholders by negotiating future contracts at prices that seemed high at first, but later looked good against $70 per barrel. As for OPEC, they couldn't have caused this event by themselves no matter how much they might have wanted to.

Finally, no one is blaming you and me. The only sensible words the president has uttered during this episode are that Americans are “addicted to oil.” No one, as far as I know, has been locked inside a dealership and forced to buy a Hummer. We reject the 55 mph speed limit whenever given the chance, and we continue to elect politicians who believe that global warming is just a myth. Americans showed in the 1973 oil crisis that they could conserve energy to a degree that astounded economists. But in the years leading up to the present price crescendo, everyone seems to have forgotten how it's done.

Now the challenge is to produce national policies that will provide incentives for Americans to cure the addiction. Stringent fuel-efficiency standards on a national basis will be essential, and reduced speed limits would add to the savings. California has shown that it can hold per-capita energy consumption flat while it has risen elsewhere, and some lessons learned there can be applied nationally. A cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, of the general kind contained in last year's McCain-Lieberman bill, should be supported by an administration that has so far shown no appetite for emissions mitigation. Carbon-free nuclear energy is stalled because it is thought to be politically dead, but there is now every reason to weigh its risks thoughtfully against the potentially even larger ones associated with global climate change. To support more imaginative research on biofuels and other alternatives to carbon, why rule out a gas tax? After all, even at $4 per gallon, Americans would still be getting a bargain compared to the Europeans.

There's one good thing about these gas prices. They may jolt us and our political leadership out of this coma, yielding some realistic solutions once this brain-dead conversation in Washington ends.

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