Here’s one safe bet in the high-stakes fight over gas prices: Now that Congress has taken its summer break without passing any major energy bill, we will hear competing claims for weeks to come with no one scoring a real knockout.
The competing claims are familiar, although there was some shift over the weekend when Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, eased his opposition to offshore oil exploration.
The Senate’s so-called Gang of 10 — five Republicans and five Democrats — had proposed to break Congress’ energy impasse by allowing some expanded offshore exploration while also encouraging efficiency and alternative energy. Obama said he could support the compromise because he did not want “the best to be the enemy of the good,” the Washington Post reported.
The campaign of Obama’s GOP rival, Sen. John McCain, immediately claimed credit for leading Obama to his new position and questioned whether he ultimately would support additional drilling. McCain also had opposed expanded offshore drilling until switching his position in June.
To put the overall debate into perspective, it is helpful to note some things the major players are not saying. Call them the not-talking points.
Republicans push hard for pumping more oil. They give nods to conservation, but you don’t hear them talk much about it.
President Bush has been a leading advocate for expanding offshore oil exploration. In his Saturday radio address, Bush chastised Congress’ Democratic leaders for “leaving town without taking any action to ease the burden of high gas prices on families across America.” Then Bush hammered on his demand that Congress lift its ban on offshore oil exploration.
Bush made no mention of a bold step his administration could take right now to ease future oil-price pressure.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration begins hearings today (PDF) on a timetable for meeting new fuel-economy standards established in 2007. The law requires new cars and light trucks to meet a fleetwide average of at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020, up from today’s average of 25 mpg.
As an interim step, the agency is calling for an average of 31.5 mpg by 2015.
Here’s where the comparison to offshore drilling comes in. The agency could move faster.
What a faster pace would do
If the government forced car makers to hit a 35 mpg standard by 2015, the United States would save an additional 300,000 barrels of oil a day in 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported.
By comparison, the offshore areas currently subject to a federal drilling ban would produce about 220,000 barrels a day at peak production in 2025, it said.
Car makers object that stepping up the pace would cost money and jobs at a time when their industry already is struggling.
But the other side argues that tougher standards are long overdue.
“A raft of studies have concluded that significantly higher standards, up to 40 m.p.g., are both cost-effective and technologically achievable,” the New York Times said in an editorial on Saturday.
First standards doubled efficiency
The first fuel economy standards, passed in 1975, “worked wonders,” the Times said. They doubled automobile efficiency and allowed the country to rein in its oil consumption even as the economy grew.
“But over time, as the standards stayed the same, and cars grew bigger, these gains disappeared,” the Times said. “The result was a jump in consumption and increasing dependence on imports from alarmingly unstable parts of the world.”
In a USA Today/Gallup poll reported last week, nearly 7 in 10 Americans said they would be likely to vote for a candidate who favored raising fuel-mileage standards on cars. But what voters tell pollsters is questionable since they have been “voting” for years with purchases of gas guzzlers.
In reporting the poll results, USA Today summarized the presidential candidates’ positions on the issue:
Obama would double standards within 18 years and offer tax credits and loan guarantees to help auto companies make the transition.
McCain would enforce current standards as a way to reduce energy consumption, and allow states to set their own standards.
Been there, hated it.
While Democrats push hard on conservation, they too shy away from some controversial steps.
Speed limits really seal campaign lips.
No wonder. Been there, hated it.
Most drivers ignored the national speed limit that was in effect between 1974 and 1995. Thus, the gas savings fell short of expectations.
(Full disclosure: This writer is not guilt-free on the speeding issue. But my last ticket came in 2004, while I was racing to cover a Bush campaign appearance.)
The U.S. Energy Department says gas mileage usually decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph.
“You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.30 per gallon for gas,” it said.
Slowing down isn’t popular
But while most Americans are in favor of burning less “foreign oil,” not as many want to slow down to achieve that goal, Joseph White wrote in his Eyes on the Road column for the Wall Street Journal.
“This is cognitive dissonance on a mass scale,” White said. “It would be good to talk this out, and Americans will likely get that chance. The idea of adopting a nationwide, slower speed limit is coming around again.”
Maybe, but it is coming quietly. Sen. John Warner, R-VA, sent a letter last month asking the energy secretary and the Government Accountability Office to study whether it’s time to drop the speed limits again.
Warner told White that he’s not necessarily advocating a return to 55 miles per hour.
“He’s urging government analysts to marshal facts to determine at what speed modern automobiles, with electronic-fuel management, five- and six-speed transmissions and more aerodynamic designs, could run most efficiently,” White said.
The Carter cardigan
But Warner is retiring when his term ends this year. He can afford to advocate deeply unpopular approaches calling for sacrifice.
Other politicians take their cues from ridicule heaped on former President Jimmy Carter for donning a cardigan and appearing on nationwide TV in 1979 to urge Americans to turn down their thermostats, pay higher gas taxes, raise mileage standards and develop energy alternatives.
“Memories of a cardigan-clad Jimmy Carter glumly exhorting Americans to accept ‘some sacrifice’ to cope with rising oil prices hang over the current energy debate,” White said. “Nobody in Washington wants to wear that cardigan again.”
And so, you have to go to Spain to hear the echoes of former American presidents calling for true sacrifice.
In a bid to reduce dependence on increasingly expensive imported oil, the Spanish government plans to cut highway speed limits to 50 mph, The Independent of London reported.
Additional austerity rules
Among other measures, Spain also plans to impose austerity rules on air conditioning, heating and street lighting.
Defending the controversial steps, Spain’s Industry Minister, Miguel Sebastian, borrowed former President John F. Kennedy’s celebrated exhortation to patriotism and self-sacrifice, urging Spaniards: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
On their own, Americans are making sacrifices in response to high gas prices, White noted, “driving less, driving smarter and, to the dismay of automakers, driving smaller.”
Now Washington faces an uncomfortable choice, he said: “Stand back and let $4-a-gallon gasoline push Americans slowly and painfully toward a different lifestyle, or get off the bench and push.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.