- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

A recent news story was headlined, “Bush aims to avoid father’s politically fatal mistakes.”

Maybe so, but his refusal to consider delaying, even for a few months, the government’s purchase of oil for the strategic reserve, to bring down high gasoline pump prices, is exactly the kind of policy that made his father seem out of touch with the average voter.

I don’t know the price where you live, but here in San Diego the average gallon of regular gas is more than $2.50. To be sure, the problem is caused in part by state and federal regulations to reduce pollution, and taxes.

Environmental activists want to reduce emissions to zero, no matter the cost. The result is additives and fuel mixtures that boost the price while doing little to cut pollution in cars already equipped with catalytic converters.

California state regulations require a boutique fuel produced only for that state by a handful of refineries. When demand is higher than expected and one or two refineries are closed for maintenance, the result is shortage and skyrocketing prices.

Another cause is the congressional mandate to mix high-cost ethanol into the fuel, raising the cost of gas to pay a subsidy to corn farmers and agribusinesses that produce the raw material. And state and federal taxes add to the cost of each gallon.

The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day, but produces only about 8 million, the lowest level in 50 years. But even with prices soaring, most congressional Democrats continue fighting proposed oil exploration in a very small section of the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve.

When Congress doubled the size of the preserve in the Carter administration, it set aside 8 percent of the land along the north coast for petroleum exploration. But ever since, Democrats in Congress have blocked drilling in that area. With estimated reserves of 6 billion barrels, the preserve could add an estimated million barrels a day to domestic production and reduce our reliance on foreign oil.

President Bush’s energy policy certainly has been better than that of John Kerry and the Democrats, tied as they are to environmental extremists. But Mr. Bush now risks falling into the same trap as his father, whose expression of surprise at seeing a new laser scanner in the supermarket became a symbol of what opponents claimed was his lack of understanding of the average citizen’s life.

The Democrats call George W. Bush a Texas oilman with rich friends in the industry who are getting richer as the price of oil soars more than $41 a barrel. By appearing unconcerned about the high price, the president plays into the opposition’s caricature of him as an uncaring oilman. They paint him as indifferent to the plight of the housewife who needs her sport utility vehicle to run kids from school to soccer games, or the man who could only afford to buy a house 50 miles away from work and must drive 100 miles a day.

When it costs $50 or more to fill the tank of your SUV and the price keeps going up, while the government continues buying oil and pumping it back into the ground, the president appears out of touch. He could stop the complaints and show compassion for the consumer by suspending the government’s purchase of oil for the reserve through the summer months, when people are taking trips and consumption is high.

The cost of oil is having an impact on the economy, since almost everything we buy is delivered by truck. A sharp rise in the price of gas leads to rising prices in general and causes inflation. The stock market is depressed by the fear of inflation caused by high fuel costs.

The administration claims the 170,000 barrels a day it buys for the strategic reserve is so small it would have little effect on available supply. That may be true, but it misses the point.

Deferring purchases for the reserve, already 90 percent full, would show the president understands the problem and is doing something about it. His father had a public relations problem with millions of Americans who shop at supermarkets. Now his son risks a public relations problem with the millions who drive.

Democrats have spread an oil slick for the president, but he can avoid it with no discernible downside by deferring strategic-reserve oil purchases while the gasoline price remains sky-high.

James Hackett is a contributing writer to the Washington Times and is based in San Diego.

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