Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Politicians in Washington claim to be outraged over Memorial Day weekend gas prices averaging $3.20 a gallon. So why are they taking steps to drive the cost even higher?

Their favorite idea is also one of their dumbest — increasing the ethanol mandate. The 2005 energy bill required that 4 billion gallons of this corn-derived fuel additive be mixed into the gasoline supply in 2006, rising to 7.5 billion by 2012.

Now in its second year, the mandate is an unfolding disaster. Ethanol is more expensive than gasoline, so its use has raised the cost of driving. And the competition for corn between food and fuel uses has increased corn prices and affected numerous food items, from sweeteners to corn-fed meat and dairy.

Rather than repeal this mistake, Congress and the president now want to make the ethanol mandate fivefold larger. Doing so would sharply increase the pain at the pump — as well as at the supermarket.

Almost as bad are congressional efforts to crack down on domestic oil drilling. That’s right, Washington wants to respond to high energy prices by reducing America’s oil supplies.

As it is, the United States is the only nation in the world that has placed substantial amounts of its own oil reserves off-limits. This includes Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), home to a massive 10 billion barrels of oil that could be accessed from a tiny portion of the refuge and sent south via the Alaska Pipeline. Also off-limits are 85 percent of our offshore areas, which contain considerable oil and natural gas reserves.

Further, even those places where drilling is not restricted outright are saddled with unnecessarily burdensome regulations, as well as procedural requirements that can drag on for years. This also limits energy production.

In the face of high prices and rising imports, it would make obvious sense to streamline these constraints and bring more oil online. Instead, several new bills seek to pile on even more restrictions and red tape, which would further drive down oil production in the years ahead. How lower supplies of American oil will benefit the driving public is something proponents of these measures have yet to explain.

The above-mentioned efforts, if successful, should be enough to end $3-a-gallon gas — and replace it with $4 a gallon. But Congress is considering other measures that could send prices far higher. Most dangerous are measures to fight global warming. The seriousness of warming aside, many of Congress’ proposed cures could be extremely bad news for future gasoline prices.

Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to warming, is a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion, including exhaust from cars and trucks. Reducing these emissions will involve raising the price of gas enough to discourage driving.

It is hard to predict how much, but consider that several pending global warming bills resemble measures already in place in Western Europe, where gas prices range from $6 to $7 per gallon. Even these prices are not reducing emissions. If $6-plus gas doesn’t discourage driving there, what will it take here?

These and other energy bills on the table now are very likely to increase future pump prices, perhaps to frighteningly highs. Just when America’s hard-pressed motorists need a sound energy policy, Washington is poised to deliver its most anti-energy policy ever.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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