There’s an oil rush going on. Everyone seems to agree that the way to address high prices at the gas pump is by rapidly expanding domestic production. Large, new areas of land are opened up for production and exploration, and despite the recent disaster of the BP Deepwater Horizon, offshore drilling in hard-to-access areas has returned to full strength.
President Obama has even recently opened up pristine areas off the coast of Alaska for drilling. As far apart as they are on the political spectrum, there’s not much difference between Obama and Gov. Sam Brownback on energy exploration issues – they even use the same “all-of-the-above energy policy” language.
We have more domestic production than ever before; we’re importing a smaller percentage of our oil than we have in decades; and petroleum products have even become our largest export.
Yet prices at the pump are rising. Why?
Oil is an international resource, meaning that the market responds to world events as much as ever. If there’s civil unrest in an oil-producing country, or increased speculation on the international market, or (as now) rising tensions in the Middle East, the price of oil – and of gas at the pump – goes up. There is also rapidly increasing demand in developing countries.
In other words, the price we pay is largely at the mercy of factors that are and always will be beyond our control. We will never be able to poke enough holes in Alaska or build enough pipelines to change that fact.
It is clear that the answer is not increasing supply. We should instead turn our attention to decreasing demand. This would lower market pressures and make us less vulnerable to fluctuations in the price.
One way we could do this is through a redoubled effort toward greater efficiency. Moving strongly toward cleaner fuels and higher-efficiency engines – and not just of cars, but of trucks as well – would address this.
Other approaches will have to come on the level of policy. For too long we’ve been building our cities and suburbs as if there’s no limit to expansion. More-effective planning, including an emphasis on “fill in” development (filling in under-developed areas between the urban core and the most-outlying suburbs) should be a priority.
We need to make it easier for people to get where they need to go, and to get the goods and services they need, without always having to get into their cars. A greater emphasis on public transportation, and traffic-calming strategies that make biking and walking more attractive, would help in this area.
I have said nothing yet of the terrible environmental costs of our obsessive focus on more drilling, including endangering vulnerable areas and adding more carbon to our already carbon-soaked atmosphere. But this may be the most compelling reason to rethink our current path.
Candidate Obama said that we needed to move beyond “the tyranny of oil,” and this remains a worthwhile goal. America is like a junkie looking for its next fix; as supply gets harder to get, our behavior becomes more reckless.
The time is now to break the habit, to move toward more fuel efficiency and other efforts that will lower demand for oil. Only when we don’t need it will the price stop being so painful.