Sometimes public opinion doesn't flow smoothly; it shifts sharply when
a tipping point is reached. Case in point: gas prices. Gas at $3 a
gallon didn't change anyone's mind about energy issues. Gas at $4 a
gallon did. Evidently, the experience of paying more than $50 for a
tankful gets people thinking we should stop worrying so much about
global warming and the environmental dangers of oil wells on the Outer
Continental Shelf and in Alaska. Drill now! Nuke the caribou!
Our system of divided government and litigation-friendly regulation
makes it hard for our society to do things and easy for adroit
lobbyists and lawyers to stop them. Nations with more centralized power
and less democratic accountability find it easier: France and Japan
generate most of their electricity by nuclear power and Chicago, where
authority is more centralized and accountability less robust than in
most of the country, depends more on nuclear power than almost all the
rest of the nation.
In contrast, lobbyists and litigators for environmental restriction
groups have produced energy policies that I suspect future generations
will regard as lunatic. We haven't built a new nuclear plant for some
30 years, since a Jane Fonda movie exaggerated their dangers. We have
allowed states to ban oil drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf,
prompted by failure of 40- or 50-year-old technology in Santa Barbara,
Calif., in 1969, though current technology is much better, as shown by
a lack of oil spills in waters off Louisiana and Mississippi during
We have banned oil drilling on a very small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
that is godforsaken tundra (I have been to the North Slope oil fields,
similar terrain - I know) for fear of disturbing a herd of caribou - a
species of hoofed animals in no way endangered or scarce.
ban is the work of environmental restriction groups that depend on
direct-mail fund-raising to pay their bills and keep their jobs. That
means they must always claim the sky is falling. They can't get people
to send a check or mouse-click a donation because they did a good job,
the restrictions they imposed on the Alaska pipeline in the 1970s have
preserved the environment or because clean air acts of the past have
vastly reduced air pollution.
ANWR is a precious cause for them because it can be portrayed
(dishonestly) as a national treasure and because the pressure for
drilling there has been unrelenting. Democrats have enlisted solidly in
their army and have also been able to recruit Republicans who wanted to
get good environmental scorecards to impress enviro-conscious voters in
states like Florida, New Jersey and Minnesota.
Now all that is in danger, because the pain of paying $60 for a tank
of gas has convinced most Americans to worry less about the caribou or
the recurrence of an oil spill of 39 years ago. Democratic leaders are
preventing Congress from voting on Continental Shelf and ANWR drilling
or oil shale development because they fear their side would lose and
are making the transparently absurd claim that drilling won't lower the
price of oil. They're scampering to say they would allow drilling
somewhere - mostly in places where the oil companies haven't found any
In a country with less in the way of checks and balances, which can
be gamed by adroit lobbyists and litigators, we would be building more
nuclear plants, and would be drilling offshore and in ANWR. We would be
phasing out the corn ethanol subsidies that are enriching Iowa farmers
and impoverishing Mexican tortilla eaters, and we would be repealing
the 54-cent tariff on Brazilian sugar ethanol (the sugar for which
would be produced not in defoliated Amazon rainforests but in the
desolate and currently unused certao).
On balance, of course, I prefer our system over the more
centralized, less accountable systems of France and Japan (and Barack
Obama's Chicago). But it sure has its costs.
But it also has its benefits: Public opinion, when it has changed as
it has with $4 gas, has an effect. Environmental restrictionists like
Al Gore have been selling a form of secular religion: We have sinned
against Mother Earth, we must atone and suffer, there can be no
argument, but we must have faith.
That was an appealing argument to many, perhaps most, Americans when
gas was selling for $1.40. It has a much more limited appeal now that
gas is selling for $4.10. The time may be coming when our lunatic
environmental policies are swept away by a rising tide of common sense.