John McCain may be the underdog in the presidential race but
you wouldn’t know it from his campaign’s bold stance on energy policy.
Last week, McCain pledged to end the 1982 moratorium on offshore
gas and oil drilling in the continental United
States. This week, he proposed offering $300
million to any automaker or individual that can develop a better car battery,
as well as $5,000 in tax credits to consumers who buy zero-emission vehicles. Speaking
directly to Americans’ concerns about an energy crisis, McCain's two-pronged
offensive also has put Democrats on the defensive.
Despite their advantage in the polls, Democrats are
especially vulnerable on energy issues. In 2006, they promised a "common
sense" solution to oil prices. All they have done, however, is blame oil
companies and threaten new taxes.
Trapped by his party's refusal to consider all the options for
energy independence is none other than Barack Obama. Since May 2006, the
presumptive Democratic nominee has been in lockstep with Democrats, echoing
their calls for the country to cut its oil consumption – the Left’s standard
refrain. In the short term, however, this is no solution: Americans cut their
oil consumption this month with little relief at the pump.
McCain may seem an unlikely candidate to challenge
left-liberal orthodoxy on energy. After all, he already has a reputation as
being liberal on energy. His position on global warming sometimes has been out
of step with conservatives’. But his deviations from the major parties have
allowed McCain convincingly to style himself as an independent. Now, he can use
that to his advantage by proposing common-sense initiatives for drilling – in a
larger, environmentally conscious context – that Americans can rally behind.
His $300 million challenge, however, is not just good
policy; it is also good politics.
First, it is a resonant message of hope and belief in
American ingenuity and ability to solve the energy crisis. By supporting more
drilling, moreover, McCain can energize his still-skeptical conservative base. Newt
Gingrich's movement to "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less" garnered
close to a million signatures and is a big reason for increased enthusiasm among
deflated Republicans. With his pro-drilling position, McCain has demonstrated
that he is willing to listen to conservatives on this vital issue.
Still, there is room for improvement. Just ask President
Bush who, while seconding McCain’s oil-drilling proposal last week, also called
for oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and for the development of
the oil shale reserves in the Green River basin of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming
as part of his four-point program to increase domestic production. McCain is
against exploration in both oil-rich areas, which probably prompted Bush to
The president makes a strong case. The United
States has the largest oil shale deposits in the world in
the Green River basin,
from which it is (conservatively) estimated that 800 billion barrels of oil can
be recovered. Meanwhile, according to a 1998 U.S. Geological Survey, ANWR probably
could produce another 10 billion barrels. With resources like these, America
would no longer need oil from adversarial oil-rich nations. And this is just
scratching the surface. Technologies that convert coal into synthetic fuel are
already economical and feasible, and America
has 25 percent of all the coal reserves in the world. No wonder many conservatives
want these regions included in future exploration.
And not just conservatives. As quoted in news reports, even
some Democratic insiders and strategists "admit privately" that that
"they are impressed with the new Republican campaign” because "gives
the GOP an opportunity to talk about taking action on a matter of huge
importance to the voters.”
In this light, Congressional Democrats’ strident opposition
to McCain’s drilling proposals makes the party look out of touch. Democrats
argue that discoveries made in offshore oil drilling would have no impact in
reducing the price of gas. It would take ten years to see any results, they
say, and oil companies already have sufficient land under lease from the
federal government, which they should explore before being allowed to drill for
oil offshore. But when Americans are paying ever-more at the pump, a politics
of obstruction won't please public opinion. In fact, a majority of Americans
now favor oil-drilling in off-limit areas.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently captured her party’s
deafness to national concerns on energy. “We cannot drill our way out of this,”
she insisted. Instead, the California Democrat fell back on conspiracy theory,
blaming the president and vice-president for high gas prices. "A barrel of
oil now costs four times more than it did when President Bush took
office," she argued. "Two oil men in the White House, cost of oil
four times higher. Price at the pump: $4 a gallon."
The claim will not withstand scrutiny. Experts have argued
for some time now that the growing economies of China
and India and
their demand for oil are the main reason for higher energy prices worldwide.
But it's hard for liberals to abandon their old,
anti-capitalist orthodoxies. Listen to Maurice Hinchey, a left wing New York
Democrat, who contends that oil companies are not drilling on the lands they
already lease because they are waiting for the price of oil to go up to
"$200 or $300 a barrel so they can make even greater profits." Acting
on that assumption, Democratic congressmen are introducing legislation that
will force oil companies to explore the properties they already lease or pay
fees (an indirect tax) that will increase over time. This idea is almost as bad
as Hinchey's proposal last week (from which he later retreated) that the federal
government should own oil refineries to gain some control of the supply.
Lost on these politicians is that any new fees oil companies
pay will be passed on to consumers at the pump. Barack Obama's plan for a tax
on oil profits would have exactly this effect. Drivers would simply pay more.
But the Democratic presidential candidate reasons that the consumer would be
able to afford the higher cost of gasoline with the middle class tax break he
intends to introduce. In other words, Obama intends to give with one hand what
the other has just taken away.
While Obama calls himself the candidate for change,
his energy policy, relying on the tired prescription of new taxes, is a relic
of the past. By contrast, McCain has positioned himself as the candidate with a
practical and wide-ranging plan to achieve energy independence. At a time when
Americans are paying $4-per-gallon for gasoline, with $5 gas on the horizon,
that’s precisely the energy boost that his campaign needed.