Gushing about oil

Posted: Friday, September 22, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

The United States lacks a serious energy policy, one that promises over time to produce a reasonable match between presumably finite supplies and steadily rising demand. The failure to enact such a policy has been thoroughly bipartisan. Neither party when in power and neither elected branch of government has wanted to impose the discipline that a sensible policy requires. That's the context in which, as Election Day approaches, the presidential candidates are now arguing about responsibility for the rising price of oil.

Al Gore made a speech Thursday in which he did little more than flail at the oil industry and the problem alike. He proposed the release of relatively small amounts of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase heating oil supplies in advance of what could otherwise be a hard winter and to temporarily ease energy prices in general. It's a bad idea, a dramatic gesture that might do the candidate some political good in the short run while setting a precedent that could do the country harm in the long run.

The reserve is meant not to provide election-year relief from price spikes but to provide the country with a thin cushion against a possible future cutoff of supplies. In the long run it can't affect price, and it's counterproductive and a weakening of policy to use it that way. Mr. Gore himself recognized that earlier in the year, as did Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers in a forceful memo recently. Mr. Gore says the oil would later be replaced, but the proposal is still a pander.

Some of the other steps the candidate suggested Thursday would be good policy, but they peck at the problem rather than resolve it. What is needed above all else is greater conservation, and conservation can be achieved only over time by raising, through taxes if necessary, precisely the price that Mr. Gore now seeks to ease. The trinkets on his list tax credits, "new investments" can barely begin to compete with price in determining behavior.

On the other side is George W. Bush, who rightly denounced Mr. Gore's proposed tapping of the strategic reserve as shortsighted and a political ploy but offers a lopsided alternative. His idea of an energy policy is to subsidize and otherwise stimulate domestic production. He laid it out Thursday: "aggressively explore for oil and gas on our own continent ... open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ... expand refining (and) generating capacity." Scarcely a word about using less just producing more.

Mr. Gore denounces the oil industry. As president, "I will work toward the day when we are free forever of the dominance of big oil and foreign oil," he said Thursday. And what is that supposed to mean? To create a villain as an alternative to having a serious discussion of a problem he might rather shun is a sleazy tactic. He suggests that the election offers one ticket Mr. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney that will favor the oil industry and one that will "fight for our families." That seems to us a false description of the choice. There is a difference between the energy policies that Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush would likely pursue in office. But Mr. Gore's disappointing performance Thursday does more to obscure than to clarify it.

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