Intensity rising in the politics of energy villainy

Bob Tippee

Intensity is rising in the politics of energy villainy.

This brand of politics, peculiar to the US, treats energy not as a vital national concern but as a morality play.

If something goes wrong with energy—meaning gasoline prices rise—politicians identify villains and heroically flail away.

Villains teem in legislation about which discussion has revived in Congress.

Oil companies! Oil speculators! Price gougers! OPEC! Villains—all of them!

So elected heroes are now preparing to charge into political battle to subdue the scoundrels with taxes, regulations, even criminal prohibitions.

They're also brandishing anew the threat of a windfall profit tax, the imposition of which would give them something to pound their chests about.

History, though, spoils the tale. It shows that windfall profit taxes don't lower gasoline prices. Windfall profit taxes lower oil supplies. And lower oil supplies raise gasoline prices.

Even for elected heroes, this is not difficult to understand. So why would elected heroes want to repeat an expensive mistake?

If there's a dark force elevating oil prices it's the cumulative effect of past decisions hostile to the development of domestic oil and gas supply, including the original windfall profit tax. Other decisions suppressing supply now or in the past include refusal to approve leasing of the Arctic National Wildlife Coastal Plain, moratoriums on oil and gas leasing of the Outer Continental Shelf, and regulatory impediments to refinery and pipeline construction.

Sinister, too, is the dominant fantasy that the economy can somehow show no strain—and that consumers can somehow benefit—from the replacement of high-potential, low-cost energy forms with low-potential, high-cost substitutes.

So if energy has to be construed in dramatic terms in order to attract the attention it needs then, yes, the subject does have its villains.

They're lawmakers who take simplistic political advantage of complex energy problems, who propose to repeat historic mistakes, and who refuse to act except in token ways on energy consumers' premier interest: abundant and affordable supply.

These villains don't need to be slain. They just need to be removed from office before they do any more harm.

(Online May 9, 2008; author's e-mail:

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