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Oil and politics

As the Democrats give ground on offshore drilling, it's the Republicans who are waffling.

August 15, 2008

Washington's fear and confusion over high gasoline prices has come to this: Democratic Party leaders, who have dismissed Republican calls to end the federal ban on offshore oil drilling as a political stunt, have suddenly decided it may not be such a bad idea after all. Yet many Republicans would rather snatch defeat from the jaws of victory than give up a political advantage. Meanwhile, it's unclear whether either party has noticed that the laws of supply and demand are already doing what offshore drilling wouldn't: causing the price of oil to drop.

On Wednesday, the Federal Highway Administration reported that the miles driven by U.S. motorists fell 4.7% in June compared with the same month a year earlier. Oil closed at $115 a barrel Thursday, down from its July peak of $147.27, on news of steadily dropping U.S. demand. For all the hot air from politicians, there is nothing they can do to affect gas prices as quickly and efficiently as market forces can.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) undoubtedly knows this, but she also undoubtedly has seen the polls showing that Americans are increasingly supportive of more domestic drilling. Hence, she's backing an energy bill that would allow four East Coast states to let oil companies despoil their coastlines, while also requiring that the country get more of its electricity from renewable sources. You could call this the Paris Plan, because it's essentially the proposal offered by celebrity Paris Hilton in a recent video that's a smash on the Internet.

There are two problems with the Paris/Pelosi plan: First, offshore drilling isn't a solution to high prices, and second, congressional Republicans are just as cynical and calculating as congressional Democrats.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says it would take about 20 years for increased offshore drilling to have an effect on world oil prices, and even then it would be a small one. In the meantime, the nation is on a path to reduce its long-term need for oil by boosting research on alternative fuels and ordering automakers to build more efficient vehicles. To step up domestic drilling now when we wouldn't see the results until 2030 would be like investing in steamboats after the invention of the nuclear submarine.

Fortunately, there are Republicans standing by to sabotage their own pro-drilling agenda. Some GOP leaders are balking at the Pelosi compromise, ostensibly because it would eliminate subsidies for oil companies. The real reason is that oil drilling has become an important wedge issue in the November election, and they want to keep it that way.

So be it. If clueless conservatives can block an environmentally destructive and ineffective drilling plan, we're on their side this time.

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