Monday, May 24, 2004

Gas: We can't have it both ways


As Americans head toward summer travel, filling the gas tank has become an eye-opening - and apparently wallet-draining - experience. The recent rise in gas prices has angered consumers, but begs for perspective: Adjusted for inflation, gas is about 25 percent cheaper than in 1981.

So it's curious that congressional Democrats last week called on President Bush to tap the nation's emergency petroleum reserves, meant to safeguard the nation in case of disaster. Doling out reserve oil would put more gas on the market and nudge the pump price down.

Bush refused, and took the opportunity to chastise Congress for its long-standing failure to pass an energy bill: "On the one hand, they decry the price at the pump, and on the other hand, they won't do anything about it."

The merits of his own plan aside, Bush hit upon a central conundrum in the energy debate: We're constantly trying to have it both ways.

Americans want gas to be really cheap and really plentiful. They want to use more of it, driving longer distances in gas-gulping monster vehicles. They don't want us to drill for oil domestically, but call for us to be less dependent on foreign oil.

Democratic nominee John Kerry previously proposed an additional 50-cent-a-gallon tax to control consumption, but now wants Bush to pressure OPEC to boost the amount of petroleum it brings into the environment.

And as one Enquirer reader pointed out this week, Democrats who dismissed Bush's tax cuts as piddling are now decrying higher pump prices that will cost families less a year than they gained from the tax cuts.

So which way is it?

Gas pains get great political mileage in a presidential election year. But drilling for votes with calls for quick fixes is terribly short-sighted. Flooding the market with emergency gas or goosing OPEC to pump more might ease concerns by Election Day - helping Bush, by the way - but wouldn't help establish a sound, long-term energy policy.

Any such strategy should be balanced. It should pursue ways to find more domestic sources and make better use of the fuels we have. Meanwhile, it should aggressively pursue the full-scale development of new, cleaner energy technologies. And it should plan ahead - something the private sector may already be doing out of self-interest.

A Scientific American Frontiers special on PBS last week explored some of those new technologies - hybrid, electric, hydrogen/internal combustion, fuel-cell - that are starting to appear in the market and could be commonplace in several years.

A top GM research executive put it in context: Only 12 percent of the world's people own cars. As that percentage rises in a global economy, it will have devastating effects on resources and the environment. The auto industry will not survive, he said bluntly, unless it produces vehicles that are "environmentally sustainable."

Clearly, auto execs understand what the public and Congress have yet to realize: Where energy policy is concerned, you can't have it both ways unless you cover all the bases.

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