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
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 Qaeda landmine or
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
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.