President can’t put brakes on rising gas prices

Editorial

P retending the president can somehow wave a
wand and magically reduce soaring gasoline
prices is a typical Washington conceit, little different from the equally misleading idea that he controls the economy or the distribution of jobs.
Encouraging such fantasies isn’t unheard of in a presidential campaign season, as candidates attempt to woo the naive with claims of omnipotence. But last week’s bickering over which presidential contender most feels our pain at the pumps, and who will do what about it, not only misrepresents economic and political reality, but detours around energy issues neither man has done a very good job of addressing.
In reality, a president can and should have only a marginal impact over gas prices. These are generally the result of macroeconomic trends well beyond a mere president’s pay grade.
Only in totalitarian systems are such powers vested in government, with usually dire consequences for both the economy and individual liberties. And such exaggerated claims of presidential power are not only dangerous to democratic ideas and institutions, but bound to breed unrealistic expectations among the American people, followed by disillusionment and cynicism when they fail to pan out.
It’s not that a president has absolutely no impact on gas prices, which last week reached a record high average nationwide of $1.80 per gallon. But these influences are marginal at best, at least in terms of addressing short-term price fluctuations.
President Bush could bow to demands from Sen. John Kerry and other Democrats that he suspend deliveries of crude oil to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a stockpile that exists in case of national emergency or major disruptions in supply. Former President Bill Clinton set the precedent for manipulating the reserve for political advantage when he used stockpile oil to lower pump prices in the months preceding the 1996 election.
But the Bush administration, to its credit, has thus far resisted the temptation to pull a Clinton. And most experts say this tactic would be unlikely to lower prices by more than a few pennies a gallon anyway.
The president could attempt to strong-arm the OPEC oil cartel into boosting production, in response to Kerry’s assertion that he would do so. But if the president who allegedly went to war for oil and is in the pocket of big oil hasn’t been able to influence OPEC production quotas, we somehow doubt producers would be cowed by Kerry’s blustering bravado.
And even an immediate boost in OPEC production would do little but psychological good. The commodity doesn’t flow directly from well to corner gas station. The situation isn’t simply the result of the cartel’s tight production quotas.
World oil demand is outstripping supply for a number of reasons, including revving economies in the United States, China and India and political instability in oil exporting countries such as Venezuela, Russia, Nigeria and Indonesia. Exacerbating supply shortages and increasing U.S. vulnerability to market manipulations by OPEC is our failure as a nation to make any new commitment to tapping domestic sources of oil, most notably in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but elsewhere, too. Most of America’s richest oil deposits, in fact, are off limits to development, due largely to the objections and protests of Democrats and allied environmental groups.
Developing those untapped domestic sources would not supply all U.S. domestic energy needs in perpetuity, or solve our short-term supply problems. But they don’t have to in order to alter the present dynamics, lower world oil prices and lessen our vulnerability to the manipulations of oil cartels.
Yet we haven’t heard a peep out of Kerry or other Democrats on what they propose to do about that, aside from the predictable Pollyanna-ish suggestions that we should conserve more and power the country with windmills and gerbil wheels. Nor have we heard Kerry & Co. advocating cuts in state and federal gasoline taxes.
Also largely missing from Kerry’s energy policy critiques is any mention of eliminating environmental laws that have driven up production costs, or exactly how he intends to clear away hurdles that have stalled construction of new U.S. refineries or pipelines.
Republicans haven’t, it’s true, always succeeded in addressing these issues, either. But at least they’ve tried — and usually over the objections of Democrats and actions of environmental groups that have championed the very regulations, taxes and anti-energy development obstructionism that contribute to the current situation.
In a rare moment of lucidity on the subject, Kerry last week also said he would work to reduce the confusing hodgepodge of regulations that requires boutique fuel mixtures to be sold in different geographic regions, a Balkanizing of the American gasoline delivery system that increases costs and complications.
But typically, Kerry said nothing about overhauling the federal laws and clean air mandates — all of which he undoubtedly supports — that make this situation possible, or about reining in the renegade federal agencies that enforce them.