With the end of Memorial Day weekend comes the beginning of summer, and with it the beginning of America’s heaviest driving season as millions of Americans take to the highways for summer breaks. But if recent trends hold, vacationers are likely to put fewer miles on their odometers this summer than last. High gas prices are finally curbing America’s demand for the open road. Transportation Department statistics for March indicate that the country just experienced its first year-over-year decline in miles driven since 1979.
A decrease in demand is one natural market response to rising gas prices. The other natural response — an increase in supply — has not been as forthcoming, and the price of oil continues to rise even though Americans are driving less. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is partly to blame for this market recalcitrance; the international oil cartel manipulates supply in order keep oil prices high. But if members of Congress really want to mitigate the effects of high oil prices as much as they claim they do, they could start by letting oil companies bring America’s vast untapped supplies to market.
We’re not just talking about the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) — which Congress stupidly keeps off-limits even though proposed oil exploration there would only affect approximately 2,000 of its 19 million acres — though opening just that 0.01 percent of ANWR to oil and natural gas development could supply 5 percent of America’s oil per year for 12 years before it starts to decline, according to Energy Department estimates. The Outer Continental Shelf — also off-limits to drilling — likely contains billions of barrels of additional oil and natural gas reserves. While Fidel Castro’s Cuba saw no compunction about leasing its share of these waters to the Chinese, the U.S. continues to forbid oil and natural gas exploration in its share.
Critics of proposals to open these areas for business argue that they will take up to 10 years to bring any new supplies online. Of course, they were using this same argument 10 years ago, and if they hadn’t prevailed then the U.S. would be less dependent on foreign oil today. They also argue that Congress should be encouraging renewable energy sources such as solar power, wind and biofuels rather than opening the spigots on new sources of petroleum. But the simple fact of the matter is that solar power and wind can’t fulfill the vital role non-renewables play in the U.S. economy. As for biofuels, the 2007 mandate requiring the production of 36 billion gallons by 2022 has exacerbated an increase in world food prices without doing anything to lessen the pain at the pump.
Receiving no help from their leaders, Americans have taken it upon themselves to achieve savings in the face of skyrocketing fuel costs. Simply put, we are driving less. Now it’s time for Congress to meet us halfway. Superior U.S. technology has made it possible to drill in the environmentally sensitive areas off our coasts with minimal disturbance to the surrounding ecosystem. Better increased production in the U.S. than in other countries with worse environmental track records. With oil nearing $130 a barrel, there are no good arguments left for keeping this supply off the market. If members of Congress really care about helping Americans who are sacrificing in the wake of high gas prices, the best thing they can do is just get out of the way.