The Culprit Is Us
THE DEMAGOGUERY of US politicians reaches a crescendo when gasoline nears $3 a gallon. It happened after Hurricane Katrina disrupted supplies last September and it's happening again this week, as leaders of both parties scurry to avoid blaming the real guilty parties: their own constituents.
China and India, with their fast-developing economies, are responsible as well. They still use far less energy than the United States, and it is unfair to expect them to maintain pre-industrial standards of living so that Americans can enjoy low oil prices.
The oil companies, three of which will announce record profits this week, may be taking a bigger slice than usual. But oil prices wouldn't be topping $70 a barrel if increased demand were not straining supplies. The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world's population, consumes 25 percent of its oil, and American motorists refused to downsize their vehicle purchases when energy was cheap. Political leaders should be explaining energy economics and devising policies to mandate conservation instead of searching for scapegoats.
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat who is running for governor, wants to prosecute price-gougers. Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania favors a windfall profits tax. And President Bush, no fan of anything that might impede business, has told the Justice Department to vigorously enforce the laws against gouging. Just as there was nothing worth prosecuting after Katrina, there probably is nothing here.
Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, proposed yesterday a two-month moratorium on collecting the federal gasoline tax, which would save motorists 18.4 cents a gallon. This money is needed for highway repairs, and Reid's source of replacement funds, a reduction in tax breaks for oil companies, would be better as a permanent change, to help reduce the deficit.
Let's also hope the Republicans don't resume their quest to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The United States should not despoil the environment to extract every possible drop of domestic oil. There's not enough in the Alaskan preserve to get gasoline prices back to the $1.20 range that Americans enjoyed in the 1990s.
One of the most thoughtful proposals comes from Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, who last month called for an expanded program to seek alternatives to oil. Even he plays down the most obvious solution: a campaign to reduce the mileage of the American vehicle fleet. Owners of SUVs and other gas hogs need to get the message that they must shed at least 1,000 pounds of vehicle girth to help the nation break its oil habit.