Catching up with Conservatism: Obama’s Gas Prices and Hypocrisy

You could go days without spotting a car here in the lush, pedestrian society of Swarthmore. But the general consensus is that automobiles in the rest of America are thirsting for affordable gas.

There’s nothing like a fuel fiasco to get Americans ignited against Washington. President Barack Obama, having nixed the Keystone Pipeline and campaigned endlessly on “green” energy back in the pre-Solyndra days, is feeling the heat. Like any good test-taker, the President is advocating an “all-of-the above” energy strategy. Unfortunately, this approach has avoided licensing drilling on public lands in the broader Gulf of Mexico, Floridian coast, Mid-Atlantic, Rockies, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Energy Czar Chu is on record for famously championing $10 a gallon gas prices to dry up demand and launch the 2008 green energy bonanza. Obama himself once wished energy would “skyrocket” and has never refuted or re-articulated these remarks.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, prices are now averaging $3.84 a gallon nationwide. The White House, scrambling to control the spin on this engine, insists that one guy in the Oval Office has very little impact on gas prices. Simply opening up drilling, advisors say, would do decidedly little for the world market. While it’s true that the President cannot directly wave a magic wand, it is disingenuous for the executive to assume vast control over other macroeconomic sectors, like regulating banking and overhauling health care, and then plead innocent when it comes to energy. After all, this is the same Administration which takes credit for any and all upticks in aggregate employment numbers. If Washington were a smaller, humbler city, the President wouldn’t be responsible. Yet, if you’re going to concentrate ever-greater political power into the national government, you must be geared up for the political petrol that follows. Our monolithic debt and deficits have systematically devalued the American dollar and made energy exchange more expensive. The President’s hands aren’t clean.  Moreover, if increasing oil supply through domestic drilling (which is safer and cleaner than production in Venezuela or Russia) would have no effect on prices, as the Administration reports, why has the President pressured the Saudis to boost their petroleum exports? Do supplies in the Middle East flow into the global market more healthily than Texan rigs?

Circling back from his energy tour through Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Ohio to champion U.S. energy investments, the President keeps repeating that energy production has increased during his tenure. Although this is technically true, these projects were by and large okayed by Presidents Clinton and Bush, not Obama. It’s not very gentlemanly to slam your predecessor in every news conference, and then take credit for his drilling when solar panels stop hypnotizing voters. And it’s drilling on private lands that’s fed most of the increase. Petroleum from public lands, which requires federal approval, actually fell by 13 percent in 2011.  In one breath, the President praises the new petroleum pipeline in Cushing, OK and takes credit for giving it the go-ahead. The only problem with this photo-op is that the President rejected Keystone XL, which would have extended this same pipeline Northward, and the new pipeline that is underway didn’t need Obama’s authorization. If this energy passe were a matter of President Obama being a concerned steward of the earth,  I’d disagree with him about policy but offer respect. However, you can’t quash a pipeline to please the Sierra Club and then expect Oklahomans to join you in celebrating the wonders of that same truncated pipe. This is slick campaigning indeed.

As a matter of political truth-speak, I’m tired of hearing about “subsidies” for oil companies. You’d be excused, based on the stump speeches, for picturing Shell and BP guzzling our tax dollars for their greasy purposes. Yes, oil companies benefit from manufacturing breaks, provisions written into the tax code for all manufacturers–oil corporation, windmill factory or otherwise. If the thought of Exxon receiving a tax-break gives you ajada, cleanse the tax law of special interests. I would gladly support a simplified, shrunken tax code, but if the manufacturing provision exists, surely oil companies meet the criteria. To arbitrarily cancel tax credits for some while watering the now-bankrupt Solyndra with “stimulus” amounts to the very same “winners and losers” game the President regularly scorns. The general justification for the government-green alliance has been that the initial investment is too astronomical for start-ups to fund on their own. But many industries are expensive out of the gate. There’s no government boost for airline investments, shipping, or hotels. With petroleum prices so volatile, oil companies themselves are rethinking their business models. As admirable as green legislating may be, it dangerously distorts price signals and builds elaborate wind farms that no utility will buy.

To be clear, I pray there will be a day very soon when safe, cheap, and domestic alternative energy charges America. I would love to drive a Chevy Volt that doesn’t catch on fire. But innovation and start-up energy investments is not in the job description of the President. Maybe algae really is the Second Energy Coming–but let’s leave that to the entrepreneurs.