High gas prices and oily political rhetoric don't mix

President Obama and Republicans eye rising gasoline prices and think 2012. Too many of their responses aren't aimed at weaning America off oil.

Trying to tank up less often? GOP and Democratic leaders are doing the opposite – filling up on political rhetoric to score points or deflect criticism at a time of rising gasoline prices.

Like a desert-highway mirage, the political back-and-forth could mislead Americans as to what lies ahead.

Republicans, focused on gains to be made in 2012, see prices in the $4-a-gallon range as a reason to blame President Obama – just as Democrats blamed President Bush for the record high price at the pump in 2008, when the national average hit $4.11 in July.

One “mirage” lies in three House bills passed by the Republican-controlled Natural Resources Committee. The legislation expands offshore oil drilling. But backers conveniently overlook the fact that more offshore drilling wouldn’t change gas prices for at least 10 years, and even then marginally – by perhaps 3 cents a gallon, according to studies by the Energy Information Administration.

In March, Republicans launched an attack ad against Rep. Nick Rahall over gas prices. The Democrat from West Virginia used to head the Natural Resources Committee, and last year pushed safety and environmental improvements for offshore drilling. He opposes the GOP’s three drilling bills.

House Speaker John Boehner says higher gas prices could cost President Obama his office, and this is not lost on the president. Mr. Obama’s ratings have dropped as gas prices have risen. Seven in 10 Americans say high gas prices are a financial hardship, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll this week. Looking toward Obama’s 2012 reelection bid, 53 percent of those who feel serious hardship from gas prices say they definitely won’t vote for Obama.

In the president’s weekly radio address on Saturday, he said he had appointed a task force to root out fraud or manipulation in the oil markets. He pushed ending the almost $4 billion in annual tax breaks to the oil and gas industry – a populist idea that Mr. Boehner suddenly embraced this week. Obama also blasted Republican plans to cut investment in clean energy by 70 percent.

But, sorry America, despite the promises of politicians, neither offshore drilling, nor a fraud investigation, nor an end to big oil’s tax benefits will relieve gasoline prices any time soon, if at all.

Those are insignificant when you look at some of the causes of the price surge, such as Middle East turmoil and global economic recovery. The Great Recession and slow recovery gave the world a three-year reprieve from the broad trend that will inevitably sustain higher prices: emerging, gas-guzzling economies such as China and India vying for a limited supply of oil.

Neither the president nor Congress have much influence over these trends. The best thing to do, then, is for the country’s leaders to change America’s fuel diet by encouraging less demand for oil through conservation and efficiency, and by supporting investment in nonoil fuels.

President Obama got at this when he said “there’s no silver bullet that can bring down gas prices right away.”

The harder truth is that high prices are likely to continue. They will actually help speed the coming and necessary transition from oil dependence, because high prices make the status quo so uncomfortable.

America’s drivers, especially those on a fixed income, understandably have a hard time with this truth. They want immediate relief. There is a sure-fire way to get that, though: Drive less, even buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle.

Admittedly, that’s not possible for everyone. Yet 6 in 10 Americans say they are cutting back on driving, according to the Washington Post/ABC poll. As a result of the last gas-price surge, Americans telecommuted more, rode bikes more often, and used more public transport – often with the assistance of their employers. From driving more slowly to moving closer to work, there are many ways to cut fuel use.

Drivers can take these steps, while higher prices do their work to change the longer-term fuel mix.

[Editor's note: A previous version had the wrong monetary value for annual tax breaks to the oil and gas industry.]

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