In the novel 1984, George Orwell used the word “doublethink” to describe the process of believing two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The concept invites an appropriate but superficial comparison to congressional Democrats’ current approach to gasoline prices.
Idea Number One: High gasoline prices are good. A high price, imposed through federal carbon taxes or carbon caps, is precisely the mechanism by which Democrats hope to curb carbon emissions. We know that this mechanism works because it is already working: As gas prices rise, American consumption is down right now, year over year (a historical rarity). CO2 emissions from gasoline are down from 2007 by a modest 84,000 tons, or roughly 2 percent.
Idea Number Two: High gasoline prices are bad. With constituents irate over gasoline prices that are pushing $5 a gallon, Democrats complain that high prices are a bad thing. They have dreamed up a number of boogie men responsible for high prices and drafted silver-bullet bills to kill them off.
This is more a case of cynicism than irrationality, however. Democrats only pretend to believe in Idea Number Two. Their presidential nominee, Barack Obama, lamented in mid-June that high gasoline prices have hurt Americans, but he later gave a much more accurate representation of the party line: “I think that I would have preferred a more gradual adjustment,” he said in an MSNBC interview. It should be noted that the Kyoto treaty calls for emissions reductions some 15 or 20 times as great as those induced by higher gas prices. Its goals would presumably require much higher gasoline prices — perhaps $7 or $8 a gallon, or even more — over a very long period of time.
Given that lower gasoline prices would defeat the purpose of their entire environmental program, Democrats are in a very awkward position on the energy issue. They know it, too. They are caught between their environmentalist allies, well-funded groups with a very loud voice in Washington, and their constituents, working people with almost no voice in Washington. The constituents’ feelings are only now becoming so intense that they are starting to matter. Regular people are noticing that high gasoline prices hit them not only at the pump, which is bad enough, but also through inflated prices for food and other important daily necessities that require transportation or otherwise track the price of oil.
This summer, Democrats have sought some course of action that will appease these constituents — something that gives a false but convincing impression that Democrats are indeed concerned about high gasoline prices. They have proposed several solutions that range from the impractical (“sue OPEC”) to the irrelevant (crack down on “speculators”) to the absurd (“nationalize the oil industry”).
After tilting at these windmills, House Democrats brought the so-called “use it or lose it” law to the House floor on June 26. They charged that, with 68 million acres under lease allegedly containing 4.8 million barrels of crude, domestic producers were consciously sitting on a ready supply of oil — as if today’s exorbitant prices weren’t sufficient incentive to bring as many barrels as possible to market. The Democrats’ bill threatened to confiscate or double the price of non-producing leases. But the Secretary of the Interior already has the authority under current law to revoke leases that are not exploited within five years (it can take that long to explore and get a well running). And as Rep. Gene Green (D., Tex.) remarked in June: “You can’t produce on every acre or even every 100 acres. I think those numbers come from people who don’t understand this business.”
Sure enough, upon further questioning, it was revealed that the 4.8-million-barrel number was made up by Democratic staffers without the involvement of government scientists — a “guesstimate,” as Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D., Ill.) put it. The bill failed to attain the two-thirds majority it needed, but it would not have lowered gasoline prices anyway.
On the other hand, were Congress to take real steps toward increasing the domestic-oil supply, many things would change on their own, some of them overnight. “Once the speculators in the market see that we’re serious about increasing the oil supply,” one House GOP aide told National Review Online, “the door won’t be large enough for them to get out.” Don’t forget: speculators short oil, too. As in all other markets (such as housing), prices do indeed decline as soon as speculators are convinced by reality.
President Bush’s decision this week to allow preparation of leases for energy exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) lets Republicans press their energy advantage even harder. Bush’s executive order of Monday removes all White House restrictions on the establishment of new oil leases. Democrats had been using these restrictions as an excuse for Congress to do nothing about oil exploration. The ball is clearly in the Democrats’ court. The OCS drilling ban expires on September 30, with the Department of the Interior’s fiscal 2008 appropriations. Although House sources believe it will almost certainly be renewed, that renewal will create another political pressure point on a good Republican issue close to this year’s election.
“We’re going to keep putting pressure on them until they do the right thing,” says Rep. Charles Boustany (R., La.). It was Boustany who rallied congressional Republicans on this issue last Wednesday, circulating a letter that might have pushed President Bush to take action this week. “We have to strategically manage our reliance on fossil fuels while we make the transition to the new technologies. To completely turn our backs on oil drilling, like the Democrats have been advocating, is just not realistic.”
Recent polls show that between 57 and 67 percent of Americans want to drill for oil on the OCS. The U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) has estimated that there are 85.9 billion barrels of oil (11 years’ worth of U.S. consumption) and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (an 18-year supply) sitting out there. And there could be much more, since many areas off the coasts remain unexplored.
Although Democratic leaders continue to resist, a few small cracks have already appeared in the Democrats’ opposition to drilling. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), who cast the deciding Senate vote against letting Virginia drill off its coast last June, said last week that he is now, well, warming to the idea.
The issue of high gasoline prices is suddenly becoming the congressional GOP’s first real political break of 2008. They have finally found an issue on which the public clearly supports their position.
There is nothing like the prospect of five-dollar gasoline to remind everyone in Congress — perhaps even Democrats — that their constituents’ well-being is more important than any ideological environmental goal of keeping gasoline prices high.
– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.