Dazzle of Nozzle Politics

Gas prices are up and so are screwy solutions

You know it's the silly season when politicians who face an election come up with finger-in-the-dike solutions for motorists upset at high gasoline prices.

To alter a nation's energy structure takes decades, not quick fixes. Yet in Washington and on campaign trails, the solve-it-now ideas range from suspending the federal gasoline tax to tapping the Strategic Oil Reserve to a finger-pointing probe of the $2.30 pump prices in the Midwest.

Highly visible moves to solve this voter complaint are more blame-avoidance than serious policymaking. Too bad. The task that began during the 1970s to wean the United States off oil and coal needs reenergizing.

Congress, for instance, balked again recently at imposing higher miles-per-gallon rules on sport-utility vehicles and light trucks. Is anyone asking if pump prices are higher because guzzling SUVs raise the market demand for gasoline, thus boosting pump prices?

A revived OPEC, of course - or rather US dependence on that oil cartel - is the main culprit for today's higher prices. So it would be easy to blame President Clinton (and his vice president) for not using US leverage with oil-giant Saudi Arabia to keep OPEC in line.

To fend off such blame, Al Gore has pulled some old ideas off the shelf that would boost the use of alternative energies, such as solar, and encourage energy efficiency. George W. Bush, meanwhile, claims he would have the clout as president to force OPEC "to open up the spigot."

Mr. Gore's $125 billion energy plan has some serious ideas for debate, even if his motive may be to avoid campaign heat. Both candidates should ask if higher oil prices actually help push consumers and industries to seek alternatives. A better mix of market incentives and government regulation would help avoid the crises that politicize energy policy and meet the nation's long-term needs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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