- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

Another spring, another jump in gasoline prices and another round of ineptitude from Washington.

There is never a good time of year to see gas above $2.80 per gallon, but it’s particularly worrisome to reach this level now. That’s because pump prices tend to go up from here as we head into the high-demand summer vacation season.

Of course, consumers have ridden this seasonal rollercoaster before — gas rose above $3 for parts of the last two summers, and in both cases the public demanded action from Washington. The only difference this time is that the pain at the pump is occurring under a Democratic-controlled Congress with a different approach toward energy issues. Unfortunately, their ideas offer little hope for relief — and could make matters worse over the long term.

It’s not as if the Democrats have a tough act to follow, as the Republican-led Congress accomplished next to nothing for the driving public. Republicans tried and failed to expand domestic oil supplies by opening such restricted areas as Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as well as the 85 percent of coastal areas now off-limits to drilling. They also tried and largely failed to streamline the tangle of environmental regulations that both hamper refinery capacity (the shortage of which is a factor in the recent run-up) and make gasoline more expensive to produce.

Republicans did manage to pass the pork-laden 2005 energy bill, which is doing more harm than good. In particular, its requirement that expensive ethanol be added to the fuel supply has increased the cost of driving.

While the last Congress debated a mix of good and bad energy ideas, the current one has only offered up bad ones. Its main approach is to bash “big oil” and punish it by raising taxes and other fees on these companies. The House already passed one bill that does this and is considering others. Of course, higher taxes on oil companies won’t do any more to reduce the price at the pump than higher taxes on bakers would lower the price of bread. And over the long term, tax increases would discourage investment in what we really need: expanded domestic oil supplies. Fortunately, the Senate appears to be balking at this approach.

Congress is also considering raising fuel economy standards for vehicles. In theory, we can all save big at the pump by switching to much smaller cars. But plenty of gas-sipping models are already on the market for those who want them. Does the public really want Washington stepping in and essentially forcing this choice on everyone?

The new Congress is also thinking about taking the failed ethanol mandate and increasing it nearly fivefold. The current mandate calls for 7.5 billion gallons of this costly fuel additive by 2012, but bills seek to raise this level to 36 billion or even more. Not only has current ethanol use increased the cost of driving, but the competition for corn between food and fuel uses has raised food prices as well. Increasing the mandate will only exacerbate these costs.

Worse, Congress wants to impose new environmental regulations, especially in the name of fighting global warming. Putting aside questions about the seriousness of global warming, doing anything about it will substantially affect cars and trucks. Transportation accounts for fully one-third of America’s emissions of carbon dioxide, and acting to reduce these emissions will require raising the pump price to discourage driving. How much? Consider that some of Congress’ global-warming proposals resemble measures already in place in Western Europe, where gas prices currently range from $6 to $7 per gallon.

And even these prices have not reduced emissions in Europe. If $6 to $7 isn’t enough to discourage driving there, what will it take here?

Strange is it may seem, despite public anger over high gasoline prices, Washington has all but given up trying to do anything useful about it. Given the energy proposals working through Congress, the best consumers can hope is that they all stall.

Ben Lieberman is senior policy analyst in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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