- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

For those with long memories, the uproar about the price of oil has deja vu written all over it. When I came to Washington, 30 years ago, the energy crisis topped the news. Oil prices were rising and (we were told) the “Arab oil embargo” was to blame.

Wrong. No matter how despotic, Arab rulers have always been happy to sell oil. Prices rose, but mainly kept place with U.S. inflation. The real problem was that a few years earlier the Nixon administration signed price controls into law. The supply of gas at the pump was not allowed to match demand. Nixon’s successors reaped the consequences. President Carter wore a symbolic sweater, and soon there were gas lines.

I don’t think Gerald Ford or Mr. Carter had much idea of what had gone wrong. Easier to blame foreigners than the good intentions of politicians. When President Reagan was sworn in, the first thing he did was to abolish the price controls. Mr. Ford could have done it five years earlier.

Today, as gas exceeds $3 a gallon, the search is on for new villains. The oil companies are “price gouging.” That’s a familiar accusation, but it’s discouraging that President Bush has joined in. Oil companies compete fiercely with each other, and their products are highly regulated. That has not stopped Mr. Bush from pulling what Tony Blankley calls a “full Schumer”: demagoguing the issue by ordering the Justice Department to “open inquiries into possible cheating in the gasoline markets.”

The president should redirect his fire — and the country’s attention — to the real problem: Congress. For years, lawmakers have done the environmentalists’ bidding. Repeatedly, they have voted for restrictions and regulations that curtail supply and so make oil and gasoline more expensive. The recent run-up in price gave Mr. Bush the perfect opportunity to pin the blame where it has long belonged: on members of Congress who fear environmentalists more than motorists.

A key obstruction is the ethanol mandate in last year’s energy bill, forcing drivers to use 71/2 billion gallons of the oxygenate additive by 2012. Producers of an alternative additive called MTBE are pulling out because they have become a target of tort lawyers. The lawyers should be fought off immediately, but the Democrats (who depend on trial lawyers for campaign funds) will oppose that all the way.

Among other changes, the White House should make the case for opening the East and West Coasts to offshore oil and gas exploration, as Fred Smith’s Competitive Enterprise Institute has argued. The last offshore spill was in 1969 and the enviros have ruled that roost since.

The same is true of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It has been on unproductive hold for 20 years. The House has voted to open ANWR, and the Senate also said yes. But a minority has blocked passage. This presented Mr. Bush with a golden opportunity. He could take his case to the country, identifying by name the senators who are more concerned about the fate of the caribou than pocketbook issues. They actually like a high oil price and work to keep it that way. The interests of rich environmentalists are not our interests. And so on. That case should have been made repeatedly. But Mr. Bush didn’t even mention ANWR in his State of the Union address.

Actually, the “other side” of this issue is so weak as to be laughable. It is said oilmen threaten caribou herds. But according to one analysis, herds in the vicinity of the nearby Prudhoe Bay oil field grew from 5,000 to 30,000 in the years since the Alaska pipeline was built.

Making the ANWR case would force the likes of Sens. John Kerry and Maria Cantwell to debate the optimum size of caribou herds. They would rather not. Imagine the field day Lyndon Johnson would have had with this. Mr. Bush’s mistake is to believe he can’t afford to alienate the Greens. Yet they, not the oil companies, serve the interests of the rich.

The argument that new Alaska oil would little affect prices reminds me of the argument — often made by the same people — that adding freeway lanes would have little effect on traffic conditions. Both arguments are false, and both express the same philosophical preference — for a bucolic, preindustrial existence. Only the rich can afford such fantasies. If we indulge them, we can expect to pay $3 for a gallon of gas.

Tom Bethell is the author of the Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.

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