Oil and Politics
Unlike oil and water, oil and politics mix so well they can be indistinguishable at times. Now is one of those times. President Bush has proposed relaxing restrictions on off-shore drilling and opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling as a solution the the soaring price of gasoline. Presidential candidate McCain also called for the ban on off-shore drilling to be lifted, a complete departure from his previous position. Gas prices are high, it seems to make sense that drilling for more oil is a solution. Are Bush and McCain simply suggesting an obvious and sensible course of action?
No. There’s two main points that make the “more domestic drilling” proposal suspect. The first is one that should be obvious, but apparently isn’t considering how many people claim we need to drill for domestic oil now because of the rise in the price of gas. If the USA started massive drilling tomorrow both off-shore and in Alaska, and building refineries for the new oil, it would be years or decades before it made any difference in the price of gas. And even then, we would be talking about maybe 5 to 8 cents per gallon. This isn’t even particularly debatable, no reputable source or study says anything else. The bottom line is that there really isn’t all that much oil left untapped in the USA, so even if fully exploited it simply isn’t going to increase the supply much. Drilling for domestic oil isn’t going to make $4 a gallon gas go away.
So why propose it as a solution to the price of gasoline? Politics 101 illustrated, when people are upset, propose solutions that benefit your corporate sponsors while paying lip service to solving the problem. The oil companies would profit immensely by drilling in these areas, and the environmental costs would be passed on to the USA taxpayer. In other words, Bush and McCain’s calls for more drilling is a cynically taking advantage of American’s gas pump pains to agitate for what their corporate donors want. And please note I’m not saying that drilling in these regions is out of the question, a case can be made for further exploitation of our domestic oil reserves. It would reduce our dependence on foreign oil some, and it would move some manufacturing jobs back to the USA. Such decisions need to be made on the basis of realistic factors though and the long term benefits and risks weighed carefully, not simply as a knee-jerk politically expedient reaction to the rise in gas prices.
I’ve also been amazed by “time travel” arguments that are being used in some quarters. Some people, cognisant of the fact that it will take decades for more drilling to drop prices, are now making the claim that “if only the liberals/Democrats” hadn’t stopped domestic oil exploration decades ago, we wouldn’t be in this mess now. *blinks rapidly* There are at least three fatal flaws in this line of argument. The first is that even in the best case scenario the price would only be a few cents per gallon lower than it is now, so this would only make a marginal change in the current situation. Secondly, it simply assumes that such drilling wouldn’t come with costly environmental damage, after Exxon Valdez hardly a slam-dunk assumption. Thirdly, and most ridiculously, if we are going to play “what if” time travel games, what if Reagan hadn’t gutted fuel economy standards and research into alternate energy sources? A much stronger case can be made that this would have done far more to prevent the current situation. At the very least millions of Americans wouldn’t be stuck with gas guzzling SUVs.
It’s sad to see politicians playing their games no matter what, and Bush and McCain’s call for more drilling shows they are indeed politicians to the bone, not leaders. The jury is still out on Obama, but so far his response to McCain hits the mark nicely: “His decision to completely change his position and tell a group of Houston oil executives exactly what they wanted to hear today was the same Washington politics that has prevented us from achieving energy independence for decades,” If Obama sticks to his guns here my opinion of him will go up.
As a final absurd note to this whole gas price “crisis,” a strong case can be made that the rise in the price of oil is a good thing. It’s helping the American steel industry for example. There’s less traffic every day, that’s a big plus in my book. More on this line of thinking to follow.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. And the image is so common that a claim can be made that it is iconic, and it might very well be public domain. Credit: Unknown. I chose it because it illustrates that oil and the environment are also inextricably interwoven, though not necessarily incompatible.)