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Are Sky-High Gas Prices Good?
President Obama keeps changing his answer.


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Victor Davis Hanson

Are high gas prices a good thing?

That is not as dumb a question as it sounds. Examine a few revealing past remarks from President Obama and the cabinet officials who are now in charge of the nation’s energy use and oil leases on federal lands. Then decide whether the current soaring gas prices are supposed to be good or bad.

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In 2008, Sen. Ken Salazar (D., Colo.) — now secretary of the interior, in charge of the leasing of federal oil lands — refused to vote for any new offshore drilling. In a Senate exchange with minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), Salazar objected to allowing any drilling on America’s outer continental shelf — even if gas prices reached $10 a gallon. We can now see why the president appointed Salazar, inasmuch as Obama recently promised the Brazilians that he would be eager to buy their newfound offshore oil — while prohibiting similar exploration here at home.

From 2007 to 2008, Steven Chu, now secretary of energy, weighed in frequently on global warming and the desirable price of traditional energy. At one point Chu asserted, “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” Chu also lamented, “We have lots of fossil fuel; that’s really both good and bad news. We won’t run out of energy, but there’s enough carbon in the ground to really cook us.”

In other words, $10 a gallon for gas would be desirable, while an enormous amount of recoverable American oil, gas, coal, tar sands, and oil shale should be left untapped.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama himself had strange ideas about the prospect of expensive prices for fossil-fuel-generated energy: “Under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket.” Candidate Obama also elaborated on the envisioned role of his administration in ensuring such high prices: “So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them.”

As for consumers’ plight in paying skyrocketing gas prices, the president, now and in the past, has sounded ambivalent. He recently told a questioner, “If you’re complaining about the price of gas and you’re only getting eight miles a gallon, you know, you might want to think about a trade-in.” Few large passenger vehicles today get only eight miles a gallon, and many squeezed Americans in recessionary times cannot so breezily think of “a trade-in.”

In 2008, Obama addressed consumer fears about climbing gas prices: “But we could save all the oil that they’re talking about getting off drilling, if everybody was just inflating their tires and getting regular tune-ups. You could actually save just as much.”

Note again the fantasy. Few of today’s cars have distributor points. New-generation spark plugs and computerized ignition usually ensure 75,000–100,000 miles without a so-called “tune-up.” There is no evidence that Americans’ tires are chronically underinflated, or if they were, that such negligence would waste more gasoline than all that could be recovered from new offshore oil drilling.

What explains the weird rhetoric from Obama and his administration? First, not long ago they considered high energy prices as not that bad. Government-sponsored mass transit and alternative-energy projects — from wind and solar to the federally subsidized Chevy Volt — pencil out only when gas gets expensive. And if you believe in man-made global warming, then the less coal, gas, or oil that Americans use, the better for the planet.

Second, a president who believes that modern cars get eight miles per gallon or need frequent tune-ups, and that proper tire inflation can substitute for drilling oil, has never run a business that hinged on having moderately priced gas to power a truck, tractor, or car fleet. In fact, most in the Obama administration came to Washington from either academia or prior state- and federal-government employment, where policy is theoretical, without grounding in real experience.

So much of this administration’s talk about energy sounds similar to a bull session in the faculty lounge, or what we would expect from lifelong bureaucrats and public functionaries who have never experienced long commutes or struggles in the harsher, profit-driven private workplace.

Now the global economy is recovering and energy use is climbing, as the U.S. dollar sinks. The oil-rich Middle East is in chaos. And more than 2 billion people in India and China are desperate for imported oil. The result is that American gas prices are astronomical, and the public is furious and starting to demand relief from the administration.

Its answer? Simple: Since reelection looms, the administration now insists that high energy prices are no longer good, but suddenly bad. And the evil oil companies are mostly to blame!

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected].



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