Big oil versus oily bigs

Posted: Apr 27, 2006 12:05 AM

TV news slays me on the gasoline-price story. For years, cable journalists have reported breathlessly on the certain dangers of global warming and President Bush's refusal to play along with the highly flawed Kyoto global-warming pact. Then, the minute gasoline flirts with the admittedly painful $3 per gallon threshold, it's Armageddon -- but for consumers, not the planet. Suddenly forgotten is the fact that high oil prices may be the only mechanism that can reduce the use of fossil fuels -- the key Kyoto goal.

Then there are congressional Democrats. They never look so happy as when they smell an opportunity to capitalize on bad news. High gas prices? They can blame Bush -- he's an oil guy from Texas.

The best part: Voters probably won't blame the Democrats for high prices, even though they have opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If the Dems had agreed to drill in ANWR years ago, there would be a new source of domestic oil to offset the heightened demand for oil in India and China.

Capitol Hill Republicans have been shameless in their own fashion. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., dashed off a letter to President Bush, asking for a Federal Trade Commission investigation into "gouging" and "price fixing." So much for the free market.

The Hastsert-Frist letter confirmed voters' suspicion that gasoline prices are so high that Washington politicians know they should do something, but no letter will convince voters that GOP leaders are really going to get tough on Big Oil.

It's clear Dubya has no idea what to do. The White House issued a four-point plan to confront high gasoline prices. I agree with much of it, and still my eyes rolled when I read it.

Bush picked up congressional leaders' call for an FTC investigation into gouging. (Like that will help.) He also called on Congress to revoke tax breaks for Big Oil to the tune of $2 billion over 10 years -- when Americans know that if Bush were serious, he would have called oil company executives into the White House and told them to cut prices -- or lose the tax breaks tomorrow.

Bush also wants to cut regulations on smog-reducing fuels and to push again for drilling in the Arctic refuge.

I agree with those proposals, but Bush is stuck in first gear. He keeps asking for the same old things the same old way -- less regulation, more drilling -- and, no surprise, his car never gets up to speed.

And it never will.

Bush will never have the public on his side on energy issues until he proposes reforms that don't spare big business and industry leaders.

Bush needs to do the following. Don't ask Congress to rescind big oil's tax breaks, unless you don't want results. Demand it.

Stop saying you want to battle America's addiction to oil, while doing little about Detroit's addiction to gas-guzzlers. Bush likes to talk up hydrogen-fuel cells and alternative fuels -- which may or may not reduce American dependence on foreign oil -- when he should be tightening fuel-efficiency standards for the current fleet.

(I should note here that Bush has done more to improve Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards than the Clinton administration did in eight years, but his latest proposal to increase fuel-efficiency for light trucks could reward the biggest gas-guzzlers when the country should be rewarding mile-per-gallon misers.)

Go after Big Ag, too, either by cutting new federal requirements on ethanol use or heeding the Wall Street Journal editorial that urged the administration to "end the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol." The high cost of gasoline won't go down appreciably when ethanol sells for $2.77 a gallon.

No matter what House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi says, many Democrats don't want tougher fuel-efficiency standards. Many don't want to cut ethanol subsidies -- which should make it fun for Bush to call for these reforms.

Give the Dems what they say they want, not what they really want.

Meanwhile, Bush would be showing leadership. He should be working to get what he can get, and taking on industry biggies at the same time. Then, maybe for the first time, some Americans would look at the president and think, "He works for me."