The other day in southwestern Fresno County, a poor part of Central California, I talked with a number of folks at a rural gas station. Most drove second- and third-hand pickups, large cast-off sedans or used SUVs. Their general complaint was twofold: They didn't have the cash to buy a new fuel-efficient Honda or Toyota. And they were now spending a day or two of their wages just to fuel their cars for their long rural commutes.
But I also fill up three hours away on the San Francisco peninsula near Stanford University, where I work. High-priced hybrid cars and new more-efficient SUVs are everywhere. Mass transit is available and crammed. After listening to these quite different motorists, I can confirm an obvious rule about energy use: The wealthier and better educated seem less concerned about the price of gas.
Indeed, from my informal conversations at two very different gas stations, I would go even further: The wealthy, particularly those who are politically liberal, also like that high-priced gas translates into less burning of fossil fuels by others and will help accelerate research into alternative energies.
But what these elites don't seem to realize is that the energy policies they tend to advocate are for the present paralyzing almost everyone else in the country -- and that the truly ethical and environmental solution would require embracing positions long considered anathema to traditional liberalism.
The debate in Congress over more refineries and nuclear power plants; drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off our coasts; and developing oil shale, tar sands and liquid coal has been usually a predictable soap opera: Grasping Republicans supposedly wish to enrich energy companies, while idealistic Democrats want only to protect the environment. But those black-and-white positions, hatched in the good old days of $1.50-a-gallon gas, should now be revisited on the basis of far different moral considerations.
One is fairness to the poor and middle class. Like it or not, radical environmentalism (and those behind it who provide the lobbying, funding and influence to block energy legislation) appeals to an elite not all that worried when gas prices rise or electricity rates go up -- since fossil energy use goes down.
But a paradox is that most environmentalists think of themselves as egalitarians. So, instead of objecting to the view of a derrick from the California hills above the Santa Barbara coast, shouldn't a liberal estate owner instead console himself that the offshore pumping will help a nearby farm worker or carpenter get to work without going broke?
Another paradox: American laws and technology ensure a rig off Florida or in Alaska has far less chance of springing a leak than one in the Persian Gulf or the Russian tundra. If there really is a shared "planet earth," then aren't we all its collective stewards? By locking out energy exploration in the United States, we are encouraging it almost everywhere else.
No one is talking of more domestic drilling to give our SUVs and Hummers one last gasp at $2 a gallon gas. Everyone is already cutting back and waiting for more efficient engines and methods of conservation. Instead, producing as much of our own energy as possible means extracting more safely the world's oil for the world's biggest consumer.
Consider also how oil triggers a massive transfer of wealth abroad that is as illiberal as it is dangerous. Productive energy-strapped Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Chinese and Indians are working day and night to give the world critical material goods, ideas and services. To be blunt, oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia and Iran are not.
At best, the massive transfer of national wealth to most oil producers translates into a Chinese worker on an assembly line working longer for less money while artificial island resorts pop up in the Persian Gulf. At worst, that strapped Chinese fabricator is also working harder for another Iranian centrifuge, al-Qaida landmine or Saudi-funded madrassa.
We should stop talking about suing the OPEC cartel, jawboning the House of Saud to lower prices, blaming the oil companies or adding yet another massive tax on sky-high gas prices. What we don't need right now are more pie-in-the-sky sermons about wind and solar saving us all or about millions of new jobs in green technology that can be almost instantly created.
That all may be well and good in a generation. But in the here and now, we still need to tap the abundant conventional energy we already have in the United States. And in large part that means building, mining and drilling.