Sometimes public opinion doesn't flow smoothly; it shifts sharply when a tipping point is reached. Case in point: gas prices. $3 a gallon gas didn't change anybody's mind about energy issues. $4 a gallon gas did. Evidently, the experience of paying more than $50 for a tankful gets people thinking we should stop worrying so much about global warming and the environmental dangers of oil wells on the outer continental shelf and in Alaska. Drill now! Nuke the caribou!
Our system of divided government and litigation-friendly regulation makes it hard for our society to do things and easy for adroit lobbyists and lawyers to stop them. Nations with more centralized power and less democratic accountability find it easier: France and Japan generate most of their electricity by nuclear power and Chicago, where authority is more centralized and accountability less robust than in most of the country, depends more on nuclear power than almost all the rest of the nation.
In contrast, lobbyists and litigators for environmental restriction groups have produced energy policies that I suspect future generations will regard as lunatic. We haven't built a new nuclear plant for some 30 years, since a Jane Fonda movie exaggerated their dangers. We have allowed states to ban oil drilling on the outer continental shelf, prompted by the failure of 40- or 50-year-old technology in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969, though current technology is much better, as shown by the lack of oil spills in the waters off Louisiana and Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina.
We have banned oil drilling on a very small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that is godforsaken tundra (I have been to the North Slope oil fields, similar terrain -- I know) for fear of disturbing a herd of caribou -- a species of hoofed animals that is in no way endangered or scarce.
The ANWR ban is the work of environmental restriction groups that depend on direct-mail fundraising to pay their bills and keep their jobs. That means they must always claim the sky is falling. They can't get people to send a check or mouse-click a donation because they did a good job, the restrictions they imposed on the Alaska pipeline in the 1970s have done a good job in preserving the environment or because clean air acts of the past have vastly reduced air pollution.
ANWR is a precious cause for them because it can be portrayed (dishonestly) as a national treasure and because the pressure for drilling there has been unrelenting. Democrats have enlisted solidly in their army, and they have also been able to recruit Republicans who wanted to get good environmental scorecards to impress enviro-conscious voters in states like Florida, New Jersey and Minnesota.
Now all that is in danger, because the pain of paying $60 for a tank of gas has convinced most Americans to worry less about the caribou or the recurrence of an oil spill that happened 39 years ago. Democratic leaders are preventing Congress from voting on continental shelf and ANWR drilling or oil shale development because they fear their side would lose and are making the transparently absurd claim that drilling won't lower the price of oil. They're scampering to say that they would allow drilling somewhere -- mostly in places where the oil companies haven't found any oil.
In a country with less in the way of checks and balances, which can be gamed by adroit lobbyists and litigators, we would be building more nuclear plants, and would be drilling offshore and in ANWR. We would be phasing out the corn ethanol subsidies that are enriching Iowa farmers and impoverishing Mexican tortilla eaters, and we would be repealing the 54-cent tariff on Brazilian sugar ethanol (the sugar for which would be produced not in defoliated Amazon rainforests but in the desolate and currently unused certao).
On balance, of course, I prefer our system over the more centralized, less accountable systems of France and Japan (and Barack Obama's Chicago). But it sure does have its costs.
But it also has its benefits: Public opinion, when it has changed as it has with $4 gas, has an effect. Environmental restrictionists like Al Gore have been selling a form of secular religion: We have sinned against Mother Earth, we must atone and suffer, there can be no argument, but we must have faith.
That was an appealing argument to many, perhaps most, Americans when gas was selling for $1.40. It has a much more limited appeal now that gas is selling for $4.10. The time may be coming when our lunatic environmental policies are swept away by a rising tide of common sense.