It's important for environmentalists to remain optimistic, but it's hard not to despair
that Americans will ever get a rational energy policy. Soaring gasoline prices this spring
and summer couldn't do it, but then neither could the oil embargo of 1973, the Iran-Iraq
war of 1979, or even the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
And so, more than a quarter century after the original oil crisis, 40 percent of
thevehicles sold in the United States are sport utility vehicles, classified by government
bureaucrats as "trucks" to exempt them from the tougher fuel-economy standards
for cars. Even the cars sold by the Big Three U.S. automakers are perilously close to
violating their 27.5-miles-per-gallon fuel-economy standard. The energy-efficiency and
renewable-energy programs from the 1970s that reduced consumer power bills, strengthened
regional economies, and increased national energy security are being jettisoned in the
name of deregulation of electric utilities. And although presidents Bush and Clinton both
promised to stabilize and reduce the hydrocarbon emissions that are causing global
warming, neither acted on those promises.
Why? Because the oil companies, automakers, and other champions of the status quo spent
millions to convince Americans that any action to reduce use of fossil fuels would
devastate the economy. The conservative think tanks (largely funded by those same
interests) attacked energy efficiency as though it were a new Red Menace. Representative
Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) even tried to prohibit government agencies from doing anything
to reduce fossil-fuel consumption-including educating the American people about global
warming. And for the last five years, Congress has blocked Clinton administration attempts
to increase fuel-efficiency requirements for SUVs.
The result was that oil consumption climbed by 14 percent in the 1990s, not
coincidentally the hottest decade in recorded history. Congress voted to allow oil
produced in Alaska to be shipped to Japan to increase oil-company profits. And a series of
mergers among the oil giants reduced industry competition to the lowest level since the
breakup of the Standard Oil Trust in 1911.
Taking advantage of the increased demand brought on by Asia's economic recovery, OPEC
cut production sharply, and oil companies increased their profit margins. Heating-oil
prices in the Northeast jumped last winter, and in the spring gasoline in California
exceeded $2 a gallon, causing the purchasers of new 12-miles-per-gallon Ford Excursions to
shell out $88 for a tank of gas.
So how did our leaders respond to this latest petroleum shakeup? The initial reaction
of the Republican leadership in Congress was to demand a reduction of the federal excise
tax on gasoline by 4.5 cents a gallon. (They chose 4.5 cents because this was the portion
of the 18.4-cents-a-gallon tax that had been enacted under the Clinton/Gore
administration.) But then it became evident that if the tax were reduced the oil companies
would cheerfully pocket the change, and that highway construction-the biggest beneficiary
of the congressional pork barrel-would be slowed. The idea was quietly dropped.
The next proposal was to tap into the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserves, the
emergency oil stores hidden in salt caverns along the Gulf Coast. Doing so would leave us
vulnerable if a genuine crisis emerged, but that isn't what killed the plan. Rather, it
was the realization that if the government sold oil at today's high prices and filled its
reserves again when the price dropped, the government would pocket the excess profits, not
the oil companies. So an alternative was hatched: The government would lend oil to the
companies to sell at the current high prices, allowing them to replenish the reserves when
prices dropped. In addition to protecting company profits, this would also guarantee the
oil industry a major new customer-the depleted Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The plan
would, in effect, require the government to sell cheap and buy dear. The Clinton
administration firmly said no, and this idea also faded.
But the oil-patch caucus that runs Congress was not deterred. Its members-the Alaskan
Republicans, Senators Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens, and Representative Don Young;
Louisiana Senator Billy Tauzin (R) and Representative John Breaux (D); and the dynamic
Texas duo, Republican Representatives Tom DeLay and Dick Armey-suggested that we solve
what all agreed was a short-term price spike by leasing out the ecologically vital (but
conveniently remote) coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (see "Where
the Caribou Roam," page 38). Doing so would turn a teeming wilderness into an
industrial dump, but would likely produce a grateful flood of oil-industry contributions
to the oil-state congressmen.
Drilling the Arctic Refuge would yield at most a six-month supply of oil-if the oil
made it to the Lower 48 at all; the petroleum lobby wants to keep shipping Alaska oil to
Japan. It's also intent on allowing a merger of the two oil companies-BP and Arco-that
have major positions on Alaska's North Slope, thus reducing the possibility of competitive
price cutting-and on preventing the federal government from taking any steps, however
modest or cost effective, to conserve energy. (Ironically, OPEC's million-barrel daily
shortfall this spring could have been neatly matched by plugging the loophole that allows
SUVs to get lower gas mileage than cars.)
Another goal of the oil-patch caucus, of course, is to elect its own boy, George W.
Bush, as president. This would guarantee an energy policy based not on the needs of the
environment but on the dictates of the oil companies and their stockholders.
Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail