The following editorial appeared in Sunday's Washington Post:
Gasoline prices in the Midwest have risen sharply and without clear explanation in recent weeks; in one week they went up 27 percent in Michigan, to well above $2 a gallon. The election-year increase in so basic a price in a vote-rich region has quickly become a political issue. Republicans blame the Clinton-Gore administration for what they decry as excessive environmental regulation together with the lack of a competent energy policy. The White House has dismissed the regulatory explanation and joined Al Gore in suggesting the possibility of collusion on the part of the oil industry, with which Texas Gov. George W. Bush is identified. Mr. Gore has called for an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission. Mr. Bush has suggested that he, too, would welcome such an investigation, and apparently one will occur, in theory a good idea. But the likelihood is that the investigators will find multiple causes, won't report until after prices have long since begun to recede -- and in their focus on the short-term price spike, will miss the long-term flaw in U.S. energy policy.
For 15 years, American motorists have been lulled, not to say spoiled, by low gasoline prices. That's part of what encouraged the trend toward sport-utility and other extravagant vehicles whose owners now are cursing at the pump. Only lately has the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries moved to drive up prices by curtailing production. The summer driving season has tightened the market further. Meanwhile, gasoline stocks have been low. Refiners had been holding back, at least some in apparent hope that the producing countries would relent and oil prices would recede. In Michigan, the low stocks were compounded by a pipeline break that produced spot shortages. Atop all else came a new clean-air requirement that refiners produce a cleaner blend of gas for sale in areas with heavy summer smog. The refiners blame this for much of the problem, but they have known about the requirement for more than a year, and federal officials say they never suggested it would lead to supply or price problems such as have lately been experienced. The feds say that only about a nickel of the recent price increase can properly be attributed to the cleaner-gas rule.
Somewhere among all that lies the likely explanation for the spike. But the problem is, the spike is not the problem. The number-one energy problem in this country is the opposite of a high price; it is profligate consumption. We use more than we sensibly should. The environment suffers. Long-term national security is put in jeopardy as well, because of the society's dependence on foreign sources of supply. The only way to achieve a significant degree of lasting energy conservation is to raise the price. Regulation can help around the margins; public investment in alternative sources of energy may some day pay off. But for now, instead of competing to keep prices down, what the parties would do, were they to put the national welfare ahead of their own, would be to force prices up, by imposing an energy-tax increase. They could recycle the proceeds in any way they chose -- an offsetting tax cut, a Medicare drug benefit, you name it. In the process, they'd impose discipline and deter consumption.
But the politics all point the other way. The last time a leading member of either party seriously suggested an energy-price increase was in 1993, when Bill Clinton proposed an across-the-board energy tax as part of his first budget. The short-lived idea was shot down in the Senate not just by anti-tax Republicans but by oil-state Democrats too. An increase of a few pennies a gallon in the gasoline tax was the best the parties could do, and this year, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott led an abortive effort to rescind even that in the face of rising energy prices; the Gore tax, he called it. Now it's the price spike in the Midwest they're competing to deplore. The critics say, with cause, that the administration has failed to develop a long-term policy. Their own sense of the long-term is the distance between now and the next election. That's America's energy problem.
-- The Washington Post
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