WASHINGTON — As gas prices soar, Republicans and oil company executives have revived a rallying cry that echoed around the country the last time gas prices spiked: “Drill, baby, drill!” Republicans in Congress, especially, have berated President Barack Obama for his policies, which limit drilling in environmentally-sensitive areas and attempt to reduce our reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels.
The president’s opponents posit a seductive and simple idea: The U.S. has untapped resources that ought to be put to good use. If federal policy allowed more drilling, gas prices would drop — following standard rules of supply and demand.
But like so many simple ideas, this one is wrongheaded and shortsighted. The U.S. cannot drill its way into free-flowing, low-cost gasoline. The supply of U.S. oil isn’t big enough to make a dent: we have about two percent of the world’s known reserves.
The larger problem is one of worldwide demand (though speculators and Middle East turmoil are blamed for current price spikes). As nations such as China and India grow more prosperous, they want their share of the world’s limited energy resources. Like Americans, members of the Chinese and Indian middle-class now view cars as symbols of prosperity and independence.
If you have a limited product that lots of people want, you can charge a lot for it — as any kid with a lemonade stand on a hot July day could tell you. That suggests that prices at the pump will likely continue to spike and then ease slightly, as they have for the past few years, but they’re unlikely to drop significantly.
Our most far-sighted politicians and our most thoughtful prognosticators have known that for years — and said so. Indeed, analysts for a large British bank, HSBC, warned last month that the world may have no more than 50 years worth of oil left, at current rates of consumption, and demand could lead to “very significant price rises.”
Despite multiple warnings, the American political system is so dysfunctional that very little has changed since a president named Jimmy Carter tried to get us to get serious about reducing our dependence on gasoline. Oh, cars and trucks get better gas mileage than they did back then. But the nation still lacks a coherent policy for radically reducing consumption.
The frustration over prices at the pump is likely a major contributor to Obama’s sagging approval ratings.
Earlier this month, Gallup’s daily tracking poll showed that the president’s favorability rating had slipped to 41 percent, tied with his lowest ever. Voters tend to blame the person in the Oval Office when gas prices soar.
I understand the frustration. Families struggling in the post-recession economic landscape — some still jobless, many earning less than they used to — are hard-pressed to fork over more and more money at the gas pump.
And for many of those families, driving has become a necessity. They’re not taking leisurely spring-break road trips. They’re trying to get to work, to the doctor’s office, to the grocery store.
Over the last 30 years, suburban and exurban development, especially in fast-growing Sunbelt cities, have produced sprawling mega-lopolises, wherein workers may live an hour’s drive (or more) from the workplace. Those suburbs aren’t exclusive enclaves of the affluent, either. Many suburbs are economically and racially diverse, so more families of modest means live far from work. A dime a gallon can break the budget.
It’s easy to look back and see what might have been: If Congress and state legislatures had adopted policies back in the 1970s that discouraged never-ending sprawl and encouraged public transit, they would have slowed consumption and eased the pain at the pump. Of course, we can’t travel back in time for a do-over.
But even those policies we could still adopt — pouring serious money into research and development of alternative fuels and boosting public transit, for example — are stalled by Congressional bickering and inertia. Perhaps we’ll get serious when gas reaches ten dollars a gallon.