On Energy: Same-Old, Same-Old

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, June 20, 2008

Listening to the back and forth this week about oil drilling and energy prices, you have to wonder whether there's anyone in Washington who understands what leadership is about.

This is about more than our immediate discomfort with $4 gasoline. Embedded in the energy debate are questions about global warming, the competitiveness of the U.S. economy and the apparent decline in middle-class living standards.

So far, the responses have been colossally disappointing, with the president, the presidential candidates and party leaders in Congress all retreating back to the same hardened and hackneyed positions that have created a stalemate in energy policy for the past 20 years.

The frustrating thing about this standoff is that both sides have it half-right. Republicans are right that we need more oil and gas drilling, more refineries and a revival of nuclear power. And Democrats are right in demanding that we finally get serious about conservation, crack down on speculation and market manipulation, and recycle windfall profits into alternative energy sources.

Unfortunately, they're both so thoroughly captured by their interest groups, and so determined to defeat the other's policies, that they haven't noticed we're now so deep in the hole that we have no choice but to do it all: Gas drilling off the coast of Florida and wind farms off the coast of New England. Curbs on speculation and curbs on CO2 emissions. Tax hikes for oil companies and tax breaks for solar.

The challenge here is to finally get real about the politics as well as the policy.

By now it should be obvious that neither side in this battle can achieve total victory, even if one party or the other pulls off a sweep in November. The competing interests are just too powerful for either side to prevail. The only choice is between compromise or stalemate.

In terms of policy, there can be no hope for compromise if both sides continue with their false claims and exaggerated doomsday scenarios. These include:

ยท We can't drill our way to energy independence.

Energy independence is a political slogan masquerading as energy policy. It's not achievable with existing technology, nor is it any more fundamental to our economic security than independence from food or steel imports. We live in a globalized economy -- get over it.

Equally silly is the environmentalist argument that developing this oil field or that gas reserve isn't worth the environmental risk because the output would be only a small fraction of what we consume. If that were the standard, no field would ever have been developed. The U.S. market is too large and the size of even big fields too small to dramatically increase supply.

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