Wednesday, April 26, 2006

How Not to Cure an Addiction

The New York Times
How Not to Cure an Addiction

During his State of the Union speech last January, President Bush correctly diagnosed America's oil consumption as an addiction. Unfortunately, Mr. Bush is balking at taking the steps to cure the abuse.

Yesterday, the president told an audience of the Renewable Fuels Association in Washington that he would try to lower gasoline prices by increasing the supply of oil available to Americans this summer. His plan is to refrain from topping off the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but it could backfire. The reserve has a capacity of 727 million gallons but is nearly full already, so skipping a few deposits won't appreciably affect supply or prices. In the event of a true energy emergency, however, a less than full reserve could add to nervousness in the market, which could push up prices.

Mr. Bush's other recommendations were similarly off point. For instance, he acknowledged that higher prices reflected global demand. But he offered no strategy to combat demand-driven price rises. The obvious solution, to increase fuel efficiency standards for ordinary cars, was not mentioned. The current standard, 27.5 miles per gallon, on average, has not been raised in more than two decades.

Instead, Mr. Bush pledged to crack down on price gouging in local markets. That's a sideshow. He also offered some veiled environmental rollbacks as a way to increase supply and lower prices. He proposed to loosen the rules on "boutique fuels": formulations that are required in some areas but not in others. That would make the market more flexible. But if specially formulated blends were eliminated without imposing a higher overall environmental standard for gasoline, the result would be more pollution. Similarly, Mr. Bush's suggestion to streamline the refinery approval process would also amount to an environmental end run, if, as is suspected, it simply allowed refiners to avoid meeting established standards.

The president made no mention of the Iraq war, which pushes up prices by reinforcing the market's anxiety over political upheaval in oil-producing areas. But he did make another pitch for drilling in protected Alaskan wilderness.

The alternative energy technologies Mr. Bush emphasized — biofuels, hybrids, hydrogen power — are important and promising. What's missing is a plan to get us from here to there. That means oil and gas prices will continue to rise, as America leads the world in draining the planet's petroleum resources.