Big Al goes after big oil

Posted: Sep 27, 2000 12:00 AM
"I will not go along with an agenda that is of Big Oil, by Big Oil, and for Big Oil ... " -- Al Gore. There are two things voters can make of such a declaration: 1. Al Gore doesn't understand energy questions. 2. He chooses not to understand energy questions. Take your pick. Neither possibility flatters the intelligence of the candidate many depict as Brainy Al, Earnest Al, Policy-Wonk Al. Yeah? What's the point, during a time of high energy prices, in brainily, wonkishly kicking oil companies around -- except to raise some voter hackles and reap some votes. Oil companies! Expletive-deleted oil companies! Environmental rapists! Hold-up men! To such rhetorical heights the Gore campaign seemingly would inspire us, without, of course, doing anything material about the problem we might expect an earnest, brainy guy like Al to address. On the evidence of his campaign rhetoric, Al Gore, A.B., Harvard, don't know from nothin' about economics. So one might logically infer just about every time an economic question arises. Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Pharmaceuticals, Big H.M.O.s -- it's one and the same since the Democratic National Convention, where Gore decided to adopt a "populist'' persona on economic questions. He's been running against capitalism ever since (with the obvious exemption for Big Entertainment). The Gore campaign's dishonesty on economics is among this campaign's most disheartening features. From the rhetoric, you can infer -- that's what the campaign surely wants -- that whatever you don't like in life is probably the fault of some "big'' company. Big Tobacco thrusts cancer sticks into our mouths. Pharmaceutical companies, at high cost, develop wonder drugs they would like to be paid for in such a way as to reward their investment and facilitate the development of still more wonder drugs. Stirring up the voters over oil prices is no feat when motorists see Exxon and Texaco pumps flashing the bad news. There are some holes in the anti-oil company argument, all the same. For one thing, the United States buys more than half its oil from foreign sellers. When these sellers decide to drive up prices by cutting back supply, a shortage results. To get a piece of what's available, buyers bid against each other. Prices rise. Didn't hear that from Al, did we? Nor has the earnest one addressed other relevant factors, such as federal and state gasoline taxes, which add about 27 percent to the cost of a gallon. (By the way, Earnest Al, in his 1993 book about the environment, advocated even higher gasoline taxes.) Consider, moreover, that the federal government 1) bars expanded drilling for Alaskan oil, 2) discourages expansion of refinery capacity, and 3) requires more expensive, pollution-fighting reformulated gasoline in markets like California. "Big Oil,'' indeed! As if Gore, in more private moments, truly sought the destruction of companies like, well, Occidental Petroleum, on whose board the late Albert Gore Sr. sat. The thing about Occidental, as the Media Research Center reminds us, is that the late Albert Sr.'s estate holds stock in it to the tune of maybe half a million bucks. The myth of Big Oil, Progenitor of Evil, is too much even for a Harvard man to swallow without hiccuping violently. Gore's fantasies about Big This-That-and-the-Other seem to proceed from the calculation that this is what the voters want to hear. Well, some may. Not the kind you'd like to see entrenching the like-minded in power. By pandering to such as these, the vice president doesn't exactly issue an invitation to calm discussion of our energy and economic needs -- now or during the Gore-Lieberman administration that could await us. The muscular approach to policy is, seemingly, what Gore-Lieberman planners prefer. This would explain the call -- immediately acted on by President Clinton -- to fight high heating oil prices by tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The gesture remains that -- a gesture, of limited size and impact. But the point is made: When Big Anything gets in your way, call Al. Or maybe not. Maybe Gore doesn't believe a word he's saying right now about "big'' job-creating, tax-paying companies. Harvard has a word for that mind-set, as do multitudes of ordinary folk: "demagoguery.''