Closemouthed on the conservation wave

For years, politicians and environmental groups have been pushing for new laws to encourage conservation. Measures such as higher fuel economy standards, tax credits for alternative fuels, and an increase in the gasoline tax are designed to get people to conserve gas, pollute less, take public transportation, and buy more fuel-efficient cars. And by cutting down on the use of fossil fuels, many say, such measures would combat global warming.

Now, conservation is taking hold. Sales of gas-guzzlers like SUVs are way down. And sales of hybrid, diesel, and other more fuel-efficient cars are way up. Seventy percent of respondents to a CBS News poll said they are driving less as a result of high gas prices, and 22 percent are seriously considering buying a more fuel-efficient car. Industries are cutting back on their energy use as well, and there is heightened interest in alternative energies.

The remarkable thing is that no regulations, gas taxes, tax credits, or any other government-sponsored initiatives were ever needed to do the job. The only law involved was the law of supply and demand. As the availability of gasoline couldn't keep up with the consumption of it, something had to give. So prices have shot up, doubling over the past two years. In one fell swoop, market economics did what years of politicking and lobbying could never do.

But oddly, the major environmental groups aren't celebrating. A look at their websites and press releases shows that, while they continue to push for legislation to encourage energy efficiency, they make nary an acknowledgment of the new wave of conservation overtaking the country.

What explains this paradox? For many, it's their hatred of oil companies.

Referring to the recent energy bill, the environmental group Friends of the Earth complained, " will line the pockets of the big oil companies who are already reaping record profits at the expense of ordinary Americans."

These groups are essentially conveying the message: It is better for oil prices to be low (resulting in more SUVs, more pollution, etc.), than for the people who supply us with that oil to make profits.

Of course, one could argue that a massive gas tax would accomplish the objective of conservation while denying profits to oil companies. But the government's tax windfall also would come at the expense of ordinary Americans.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York is on an oil company rampage. Scapegoating oil companies for the recent rise in gas prices, she lashed out, "If we don't fight Big Oil, this country's going down."

But when politicians "fight" Big Oil - by imposing additional regulations, prohibitions, and taxes - oil companies' task of exploration and development gets harder. The supply of oil and gasoline thus gets reduced, causing prices to go up. Politicians again scapegoat Big Oil for the high prices, and the vicious circle continues.

While Clinton did not explicitly call for price controls, at least two of her Democratic colleagues in the Senate have: Bill Nelson of Florida and Carl Levin of Michigan. Levin introduced a bill that would temporarily freeze gasoline prices. But this would work against conservation, and conflict with Levin's strong support for measures to try to reduce global warming and to encourage alternative fuels. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Senator Bill Nelson's constituency.]

Former presidential contender John Kerry, true to form, is sending contradictory signals, too. A decade ago he proposed a 50-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, in addition to voting for the 4.5-cent increase. His wish for high gas prices finally has come true. And sure enough, now he seems to think it's a bad thing. He complained recently about Americans "paying through the nose" at the pump.

Pained by the prospect of oil company profits, it seems Kerry likes high gas prices only when they are caused by gas taxes rather than by market forces. But market-generated high prices have the very same positive effects on conservation as tax-generated high prices.

Those who call themselves environmentalists should be applauding the country's renewed efforts at conservation. Instead, many of them want a return to low gas prices. While this could be good for the economy, it would also mean more SUVs on the road, reduced development of alternative energies, and perhaps more greenhouse gases. It calls into question their true commitment to the environment.

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