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|08-08-2008, 10:06 AM||#1|
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Drill/No Drill? This Hits the Nail on the Head...
Democrats and gas prices? That '70s Show
By Kevin Ferris
Published on Friday, Aug 08, 2008
PHILADELPHIA: Last week's energy debate in Congress gives voters concerned about gas prices a good idea where U.S. energy policy is headed.
If Barack Obama is in the White House, Democrats win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi has fewer pesky Republicans to ignore in the House, this will be energy rule No. 1:
Forget more drilling. Offshore. Alaska. Doesn't matter.
Then step two, let slip by an unidentified Democratic aide recently in The Hill newspaper: ''Right now, our strategy on gas prices is, 'Drive small cars and wait for the wind.' ''
In other words: Suck it up, gas-guzzlers. Break out the Carter-era sweaters and hair shirts, turn down the thermostats this winter and let the drill bits rust. Policies of the 1970s are good enough for the 21st century.
Only when the high priests of sacrifice see true remorse and combustion engines are offered up on the conservation altar will a mighty wind blow — from top Democrats, not turbines — touting the wonders of alternative energy.
And wonders they are. Necessary ones, crucial for environmental, economic and national security reasons. There's bipartisan consensus on much of it: clean energy, new technologies, alternate fuels. Look at John McCain's Lexington Project (www.johnmccain.com), Obama's energy plan (www.barackobama.com) or the House GOP's ''all of the above'' package (www.republicanleader.house.gov).
There's even a growing acceptance of nuclear power, though it's grudging in some circles. As the mostly self-anointed President Obama evolves on this one — expect an ''As I've said consistently'' head fake — look for subsidies to shrink, plants to become unaffordable and the release of ''The China Syndrome — 30th Anniversary Edition,'' with an intro by Oscar-winning scare-meister Al Gore.
Necessary as all those energy sources are, though, the reality is we'll need oil for decades, and the less we get from unstable regimes the better.
And that's where the consensus ends. You see the differences from the presidential campaign to the local races, including Pennsylvania's 7th District, with Democratic freshman U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak against Republican Craig Williams.
Both candidates rightly recognize there are short- and long-term solutions to the energy crisis. Both are correct that a mix of energy sources is needed. They differ on drilling.
Sestak is unequivocal about the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge on his campaign Web site — ''prohibit drilling'' — but in interviews says he'd consider more drilling if oil companies can satisfactorily answer some questions:
Why open up more areas to drilling if 68 million acres in already leased lands aren't in production?
If the goal is to help reduce prices, what's the practicality of drilling in ANWR when its oil wouldn't be available for a decade, and when that oil would have little impact on prices (he quotes government estimates of 1.8 cents a gallon by 2025)?
The debate should be about relief to consumers, not producers, Sestak says.
''My job is not to make profits larger although I care about a healthy oil industry,'' Sestak says. ''My job is to take care of my constituents.''
Williams just returned from Alaska, and suggests some answers that might nudge Sestak and his colleagues into the more-drilling camp:
Companies are ready to drill more on leased lands, particularly in the Alaskan National Petroleum Reserve, which was set aside in the 1920s specifically for oil exploration. What's the holdup? One problem is lawsuits by environmentalists, Williams says.
That 10-year window before oil production begins? Williams believes that time can be almost halved if Congress streamlines the leasing process and cuts other pre-drilling red tape — without sacrificing environmental protections.
And Williams dismisses the notion that more oil production will not lower gas prices: ''When people say this will have only a nominal impact on prices, that's saying we don't have to do anything at all.''
Keep two things in mind, Williams advises. One, ANWR estimates are based on decades-old studies, and sites often produce considerably more oil than anticipated. Two, news drives future markets, and oil prices have already dipped since the lifting of the presidential moratorium on offshore drilling. Imagine the change if Congress committed to an energy package that includes drilling for oil, nuclear power, natural gas, clean-burning coal and renewables.
The argument that increased supply lowers prices makes sense, but the public is entitled to a full debate on drilling. Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Pelosi last week decided otherwise, no doubt fearing a mass defection by Democrats if a fair vote on drilling was allowed.
But the questions aren't going away between now and November. And with gas hovering at $4 per gallon, voters want real answers. Mighty winds — from top Democrats, not turbines — won't be enough.
Ferris is commentary page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
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