On Energy, GOP Doesn't Know What the Problem Is

Capitalizing on instability in the Middle East, last week House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed high gas prices -- which have shot up in response to fears of prolonged disruptions in the supply of crude oil -- on President Barack Obama's supposed reluctance to "drill, baby, drill."

"Americans looking at the price of gas at the pump these days are justifiably upset," McConnell said. "What they may not realize is that some in the administration are actively working to prevent us from increasing our own oil production here at home."

Aside from the factual inaccuracies -- domestic oil production rose to its highest level since 2003 last year -- at the heart of Republicans' long-standing approach to energy and transportation issues is a basic logical flaw: Republicans assume we can resolve shortages -- and continue to rely on automobiles to the degree that we do -- by increasing supply.

In Republican fantasyland, opening up enough deep-sea oil wells can quickly flood our domestic oil market and keep prices low. But with only 2 percent of the world's oil reserves, there's no way we can drill our way to low gas prices; loosening restrictions on oil drilling -- a process that takes years to bear fruit -- will not significantly affect the overall price of oil. Oil is a global, fungible commodity, and so the price is set by global supply and global demand. Your car runs just fine on oil drilled in Siberia, and a car in Beijing runs fine on oil drilled in Alaska. And we're not the only ones with increasing energy needs. With rising demand for gasoline in Asia, no amount of U.S. drilling will significantly lower the prices Americans pay at the pump. "Only Saudi Arabia has enough oil to pick up the slack from Libya," says Bracken Hendricks, an energy expert at the Center for American Progress.

Of course, what we have is a demand-side problem that can only be solved by reducing the amount of oil we use, which will in turn ensure that our wallets and national economy are less affected by price spikes. We currently consume 25 percent of the world's oil, in part because we drive more and use less efficient cars than our developed counterparts in Western Europe. As the Department of Energy noted in a 2005 report: "In the United States, in contrast to other regions of the world, about 2/3 of all oil use is for transportation. ... Gasoline, in turn, accounts for about 2/3 of the total oil used for transportation in the United States."

To reduce our oil consumption, we need to improve the efficiency of our cars -- a goal Obama has already taken steps toward by raising fuel-efficiency standards. Just as important, however, is giving people ways to get around without a car. If Republicans really want to help Americans save money on gasoline, they should support efforts to develop public transportation. But alas, the same mentality that pervades the right wing when it comes to energy applies to mass transit, too.

Road space, like oil in the ground, cannot be infinitely increased in places where we've already built homes and businesses -- to relieve congestion, you can't just build more roads. The price we pay for growing demand for road space is hard to see because we don't pay it at the pump. But we are indeed paying, with time wasted in aggravating traffic, 40,000 annual deaths in auto accidents, and all the lost productivity that results. In the same way that reducing demand for oil is the only way to bring down its price, the only way to alleviate congested airports and highways is to reduce demand. Yet, as we've seen over the last few weeks, when progressives try to get people out of their cars by building bicycle lanes or high-speed rail lines -- solving two problems at once -- they face incredulity from conservatives.

Airplanes, like cars, use a lot of gasoline. The only prospect for reducing air and car travel between American cities is rail. At the local level, where most car trips are made, you can invest in mass transit -- street cars, light rail, buses -- and expand opportunities to walk and bicycle by building safe sidewalks and bike lanes. But Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida recently rejected billions of dollars in federal funds for high-speed rail construction, and national GOP darling Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey canceled plans for a much needed rail tunnel across the Hudson River. Meanwhile, conservative and libertarian pundits and think tankers have been berating rail advocates for the "ridiculous" idea that Americans might be willing to use trains, a form of travel that was widely used in the U.S. before World War II and is widely used today in Europe and Asia. Conservatives correctly note that if you arrive in, say, Orlando by train but need a car to get anywhere from the station, you will still elect to drive. Fair enough, but that proves not that we shouldn't invest in high-speed inter-city rail but rather that we must pair it with improved mass transit within cities.

A more local manifestation of the reactionary worldview can be found in the opposition to New York City's expansion of bicycle lanes. Being New York, the right wing is represented by the center-left (Sen. Chuck Schumer's wife Iris Weinshall, Rep. Anthony Weiner, and The New Yorker's John Cassidy). While professing a commitment to reducing auto-dependence, they complained in The New York Times and The New Yorker that a new bike lane along Brooklyn's Prospect Park West takes space away from cars for driving and parking. That, of course, is the point. We cannot expand New York City's roads, but we can reorient them to facilitate other means of transportation. By doing so, we will reduce demand and in turn, reduce traffic -- or at least constrain its growth.

"If you build it they will come -- in transportation that applies to every way people get around," says Noah Budnik, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. "If you build better transit, trains, better streets for biking and walking, people will get around those ways." Indeed, the Prospect Park West bike lane dramatically increased the number of cyclists in just a few months.

But while the spats over local and state action on high-speed rail and bike lanes have generated plenty of media chatter, their effect on auto dependence and carbon emissions is extremely limited. What we need is a big solution in the overdue reauthorization of the Surface Transit law, which governs the disbursement of federal funds for highways and mass transit. In February, the Obama administration released a forward-looking proposal that would increase investments in transit and counter suburban sprawl. The administration wants to spend $556 billion on transportation infrastructure over the next six years, [roughly twice the size of the last reauthorization. The administration now awaits congressional action. This is a prime opportunity for Republicans in Congress, their conservative cheerleaders, and New York's bike-lane antagonists to put their money where their mouth is. Either they can save Americans money and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by investing in mass transit, or they can continue to watch gas prices rise and to bicker about how to increase supply at the margins.

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