August 10, 2008

Still Besotted With Oil

We aren't naive. We realize that oil, natural gas and coal will be major sources of energy for at least two decades to come, barring a technological miracle. And that may mean that some new offshore drilling might be necessary, as President Bush said the other week when calling for lifting a ban on such activity off the West and East coasts.

Meanwhile, the major-party presidential candidates have shown how wedded they are to principle: Despite their once strong opposition to offshore drilling, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain have now come out in favor of it. The obvious reason: Americans are angry that they now have to pay half of what Europeans pay for gasoline. At this rate will America ever honestly face its energy crisis?

Though offshore drilling is environmentally safer than it once was, it would still be wise to use restraint because of the danger of spills. Imagine one on the fishing grounds of Georges Bank . . . Drilling for natural gas is less environmentally menacing. Meanwhile, there's still plenty of drilling of both in the Gulf of Mexico.

A big problem with the president's energy program is that he doesn't really have one. Nor does Congress, including the two major- party presidential candidates.

They mostly simply react to the ups and downs of the international oil and natural-gas markets, and spend most of their time on the energy issue trying to assuage consumers still living in an illusory world of cheap fuel. Senator McCain's silly idea of suspending the federal gasoline tax this summer took the cake of irresponsibility in the circus world of U.S. energy "policy." And now Barack Obama has come out in favor of the irresponsible notion of raiding America's Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

While our federal politicians complain about high gasoline prices (now temporarily falling) and our reliance on foreign oil, they do nothing serious to get us off oil. They demand lower prices, so we'd use more of it . . . Eh?

What America really needs is an Apollo/Manhattan Project-sized (or bigger) effort to develop alternative, clean-energy sources. This is, after all, a long national emergency -- of our own making.

The best way to pay for such an urgent project is to make gasoline more expensive by raising the federal gasoline tax. This would discourage use and drive more people to mass transit, with assorted environmental and economic benefits.

Use the money from the tax hike to urgently promote alternative- energy research and development -- more efficient wind, tidal, solar and hydrogen energy and far more powerful and efficient batteries to store power -- and mass transit. (Note also that about 70 percent of our oil imports are to make gasoline; creating a new, much more powerful rechargeable battery is essential in getting out of this fix.)

Some of the money should also be used to help tide over poor people facing fearsome challenges in paying their energy costs, especially their heating bills. This coming winter looks very scary for New England and other northern places. A lot of people will need a lot of help.

A higher gasoline tax would use the magic of the market to meet the need to confront our energy crisis by spending massive amounts of federal money to find new and clean-energy sources while discouraging oil consumption.

"Green" politicians in Congress all mouth the usual lines about stemming global warming and our disastrous fossil-fuel addiction. But when push comes to shove, they won't do anything that might offend myopic consumers. We don't expect courage during the campaign. Maybe after?

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