July 31, 2008

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Mike Seate Column

By Mike Seate, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 31--Something like three seconds had passed after the last gas station attendant posted the $4 per gallon signs, and the chorus began. From talk radio to the nightly political chat shows to countless press releases from elected officials, the calls to lift the moratorium on off-shore oil drilling was deafening.

On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer. How can anyone worry about potential environmental damage when our wallets are at stake? Access to more crude oil has got to mean we'll all pay a lot less at the pumps, right? Well, that depends on who you ask.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration, a nonpartisan governmental body, has said drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife refuge would trim only 1 to 3.5 cents from the price of a gallon of gasoline by 2027, and that's only if the price of crude doesn't continue to climb.

The agency says it would take years to bring that oil to market. So if drilling is no silver bullet, why the hue and cry to fire up the machinery? That's what I asked Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican from Upper St. Clair, who has been a big supporter of lifting the drilling ban and has backed efforts by President Bush to do so.

"It's not just a matter of pulling oil, but dedicating those revenues to a comprehensive plan that is bigger even than the Apollo space program because it affects Americans in so many ways," Murphy said during a phone interview.

The congressman says drilling is only part of a far-reaching program to alter transportation and fossil fuel use in our country. It's a plan that involves offering tax incentives to vehicle manufacturers to help them retool for a generation of fuel-efficient cars, developing non-food-based fuels and providing tax credits to consumers who buy fuel-saving cars.

But before any of this can happen, Murphy says we have to "drill our way out of this problem."

That seems like sound advice from this member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. But then again, Murphy has many friends in the energy and automotive industries -- such as the National Auto Dealers Association, which donated $35,000 to his elections since 2002, and Sunoco's political action committee, which helped out with $13,500 in contributions since 2002, according to the Federal Election Commission.

And although lobbyists throwing money to like-minded politicians is perfectly legal, I can't help but wonder whether the people who would profit most from drilling aren't fueling the fervor to get the drill bits turning. Finding sources of oil, after all, won't stop the Exxons of this world from charging higher prices.

Murphy, for his part, isn't buying any counterarguments.

"Look, (Federal Reserve Chairman) Ben Bernanke said a 1 percent increase in oil production could mean 10 percent in price reduction at the pump. Just mentioning drilling has already brought the price of crude oil down," he said.


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