- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

When I was in Zimbabwe during the beginning of its current fuel crisis a few years ago, a popular joke about President Robert Mugabe’s inept policies described a driver, sitting in his car in a long line waiting at a gas pump.

Unable to bear the wait any longer, he fumed, “I’m going to drive to the presidential mansion and give Mugabe a piece of my mind.” But, alas, the story says, when he arrived at the mansion, he found the line there was even longer.

A similar nightmare of political backlash must have been swimming around in President Bush’s head when he asserted in his State of the Union address that “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.”

Addicted to oil? Strains of an old Robert Palmer hit wafted through my head: “Might as well face it, you’re addicted to ….” Oil?

It hardly qualified as a new statement, except we usually hear it from Democrats and environmental activists, not the head of the most oil-friendly administration in U.S. history. If Americans are addicted to oil, the administration has been a major pusher.

I don’t remember the president admonishing the public on its oil “addiction” when he worked at oil companies like Harken or Arbusto, which is Spanish for “bush.” Vice President Dick Cheney was chief executive officer of Halliburton, a very large oil and gas services company. This is, I remind you, the only administration whose secretary of state once had an oil tanker named after her.

By now the president should know as well as anyone that Americans are not so much “addicted” to oil as dependent on it for lack of better alternatives. That’s simple economics. One becomes a junk food “junkie” when better food is either unavailable or unaffordable.

You could see this in the way we Americans howled when gasoline hit $3 a gallon, a price ceiling much of the rest of the developed world broke through decades ago, mostly because of taxes various governments put on fuel consumption.

The European consumers’ response was to drive more fuel-efficient cars and invest in better mass transit systems. Japan’s auto industry produced the fuel-efficient hybrids that been wildly successful with American consumers.

What is to be the American response? Were President Bush to break with typical political tradition and tell candid truth to the public, he would note that history shows rising oil prices the most effective way to nudge the country out of its oil dependency because it reduces demand. But too much candor about such sensitive matters can be political suicide, especially in an election year.

Instead, Mr. Bush’s oil remarks sounded as if they were inserted into his laundry list of promises in response to (1) opinion polls that show his approval ratings slumped to around 45 percent and (2) news that Exxon Mobil Corp. had reported what analysts called the highest profit in U.S. history ($10.71 billion for fourth-quarter 2005 and $36.13 billion for the year).

Among other worries these days, the public wants fuel price relief. The public, like that fabled Zimbabwean in the gasoline queue, wants some response from the White House to their fuel price complaints. Mr. Bush was trying to give it to them.

But will Mr. Bush back up his words with real action? It was not a good sign that he called for more nuclear power and alternative fuels research just as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado was preparing to lay off researchers working on plant-based fuels, including the non-corn ethanol Mr. Bush praised in his speech.

When liberals and environmentalists talk about oil “addictions,” they often talk in their next breath about new regulations, federal subsidies or tax breaks for alternative fuels and taxes for “windfall profits.” But there’s probably no way the fiercely-anti-tax Mr. Bush will back up his “addiction” rhetoric with taxes or any other serious action to reduce oil demand.

New legislation, including increasing vehicle mileage standards and the federal gas tax, would help reduce our energy dependence, though it also would require the sort of sacrifices Mr. Bush has been loathe to impose in his war against terrorism.

If he’s true to his free-market conservative beliefs, Mr. Bush probably thinks in his heart of hearts that high fuel prices alone will create new demand for fuel-efficient cars and alternative fuels. He could be right. But, for those seeking relief soon, the free market could use some government help — before the angry drivers start lining up in front of the White House.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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