"This debate is a debate we want to have.... this summer will see the highest gas prices in years. Your constituents saw those reports, and they'll be talking about it." -- House Speaker John Boehner to fellow Republicans
I DON’T KNOW if you noticed, but the conversation is finally here. We’re in it now.
For years I’ve heard people say things like, “One day we’ll rely less on fossil fuels — prices will get higher, demand will go down, and we’ll start focusing on renewable energy.”
It all seemed so far away for so long. But the hot topic in Savannah right now is a bike lane, of all things, specifically the new one on Price Street.
Granted, most of the conversation has been about how the City designed and implemented said Price Street bike lane.
But the fact remains that we’re still all talking about a bike lane. When was the last time that happened?
One of the hotter political topics over the last year was about a solar energy company, Solyndra. Granted, most of the conversation was about government loans to the now-bankrupt firm which didn’t turn out to be very good investments.
But the fact remains that the whole fuss was over a solar energy company. When was the last time that happened?
You’ve noticed gas prices ticking up recently. I tell you who else has noticed: Republicans, who as the above quote from John Boehner shows, are positively giddy at the prospect of higher prices at the pump negatively impacting the economy and the idea that this might help them defeat President Obama.
It will be quite a coup if so, considering they’ve winnowed their field down to one guy who is Thurston Howell III with better hair and another guy who insists that a woman give birth to her rapist’s baby rather than get an abortion. But I digress.
While I distinctly remember gas prices being at this exact same “unprecedented” level a few months ago — before we got into an election year — there’s little question that rising fuel costs will make re–election more difficult for the president. Presidential job approval ratings closely track prices at the pump in boom times or bust, and Obama’s certainly not immune.
What’s likely to get lost in all this is the fairly surprising news that Americans are actually using much less gasoline these days — 8 percent less now than during the peak year of 2006.
Recession played a role in the slackening of demand, but most experts think lower demand is not a bug but a feature, with one trendline seeing 20 percent lower gasoline use in the U.S. by 2030.
The fact that this will all happen in an environment where there will be at least 20 million more cars on American streets is a testament to increased efficiency, both in vehicle design as well as in personal habits, i.e., bike lanes and the like.
The most illuminating news of all, though, is the fact that the United States is now a net exporter of gasoline — the first time that’s happened since 1949.
That’s right: the global energy hog has gas left over to sell.
Oh, America’s still an energy hog, make no mistake. But despite the hubbub over the Keystone XL pipeline being a magic formula for U.S./Canadian energy independence, the truth is that if constructed, Keystone XL will chiefly transport fuel that’ll end up in gas tanks in foreign nations.
We all agree on the need for a vibrant private sector in America’s new energy reality, but what’s less agreed on is the controversial but undeniable impact of government — and the uncomfortable truth that the free market isn’t as all-knowing and self-correcting as it’s often made out to be.
With hindsight, we see that President Obama’s much–maligned bailout of two of Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers not only accomplished its major goal of preventing the layoffs of over a million workers at the height of an already–brutal recession, it also rejuvenated the American auto industry to levels we haven’t seen in years.
For the first time since the collapse in 2008, GM is outselling Toyota worldwide (though my beloved Pontiac brand, alas, is no more). You can argue the fine points of Austrian economics vs. Marxist dialectic all you want, but there’s no way that happens without the federal bailout.
Like the so–called Obamacare legislation, the auto bailouts provoked profound, nearly primal rage from opponents.
But fast forward: Mitt Romney, whose father was governor of Michigan, will likely lose that state’s Republican primary in large part because he was against those bailouts.
Here’s another blast from the past that looks better in hindsight: Remember Cash for Clunkers? The point was to provide incentive to get older gas–guzzling vehicles off the road in exchange for newer, more fuel–efficient vehicles.
How much more fuel–efficient? There are affordable 2012 models with engines that shut off automatically when the car idles, then instantly start again when you touch the gas pedal. This will be baseline, standard technology in a few years.
Was there abuse in Cash for Clunkers? Were the Solyndra loans a bad idea? Probably yes and yes on both counts.
But if we stay focused on the big picture (a real commitment to energy efficiency) instead of just the small picture (bureaucracy is inefficient, who knew?) we see that where the rubber meets the road (oh yeah), rising gas prices will be at least partially offset by dramatically increased efficiency.
And as far as politics goes, it seems — all the opposition party’s wishful thinking for a worsening economy aside — that the president’s long-range view is sound.
So are gas prices going up? No doubt. Are you gonna like it? No way.
Will a new president magically make prices come down? Almost certainly not.
The brave new world everyone used to talk about is here — along with all those bicycles. So don’t drive in the right-hand lane on Price Street anymore!