Party politics and energy

Aug. 21, 2000
Presidential platforms by the two major US political parties give the oil and gas industry little to cheer.

Presidential platforms by the two major US political parties give the oil and gas industry little to cheer. There is comfort, however, in the assurance that parties adopt platforms to attract votes, not make policy.

On energy, the platforms diverge in two main respects. The Democrats oppose leasing of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain and support the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Republicans take the other side on each issue.

Against those criteria, the Republicans clearly follow the better path on energy. But they fail for missing an opportunity to distinguish themselves on energy fundamentals. Mainly, their energy program just errs less frequently than that of their opponents.

Untenable premise

This is no great feat. In nearly every respect, the Democratic energy approach is wrong. And it is wrong because it proceeds from an untenable premise.

The Democrats can't deal with energy outside the context of environmentalism and without resort to mass manipulation. To Democrats in the era of Pres. Bill Clinton and a would-be successor who dislikes the reciprocating engine, anything having to do with energy is environmentally suspect. To Democrats in this era, energy policy-making means molding human habits into conformance with government desire.

"Democrats," the platform says, "believe we must give Americans incentives to invest in driving more fuel-efficient cars, trucks, and sport utility vehicles; living in more energy-efficient homes; and using more environmentally sound appliances and equipment." This is propaganda, of course. The phrase "give Americans incentives" sounds positive. What it means is that Democrats want to economically punish Americans into behavior acceptable to Democrats.

And behavior acceptable to Democrats-Vice-Pres. Al Gore's Democrats, at any rate-does not include consumption of fossil energy. In their platform, Democrats describe the worst imaginable but very unlikely outcome of climate change and blame it on combustion of hydrocarbons. Despite concern that the US is "held hostage to foreign oil," Democrats would discourage domestic production. And their platform professes commitment to "protecting the coasts of California and Florida and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas drilling."

To this ideological equivalent of raw meat, which was easy to see coming, the Republicans respond like a flock of herbivores. Their platform takes a few warranted slaps at energy policy-making in the Clinton era. It rightly proposes acceleration of oil and gas leasing of federal land and an end to what it calls the Environmental Protection Agency's "regulatory blitz" against refiners. But it not only overlooks the central flaw of the Democratic approach to energy but adapts it to its own political purposes.

The central flaw is the assumption that the government makes energy choices superior to those of individual energy consumers acting in their own interests. This just isn't so. It has never been so, and history proves it. Government choices on energy lead to grief-always have, always will.

The energy choices on which Democrats would insist if voted into power flow from environmental assertions-on matters such as smog and, especially, climate change-that are exaggerated if not altogether wrong. The assertions need to be resisted individually. But the core assumption about the superiority of government choice needs to be confronted as well. Republicans apparently aren't up to the fight.

In fact, the Republican platform panders to pet constituencies with talk of tax credits and other incentives for renewable energy, ethanol, and residential use of solar power. That these measures are mostly harmless and politically difficult to resist begs a larger question: What business is it of government to favor one energy form over another and to support it with the people's money? Where have the Republicans gone who ask questions like that?

Easy target

In their presidential platform, the Democrats propose to resurrect a centrally planned energy economy that has cursed consumers in years past and failed. It's an economy twisted by taxes, distorted by subsidies, and corrupted by political favoritism. Even in its new environmental costume, an energy economy like that should be an easy target because an energy economy like that usurps liberty.

In the energy plank of their political platform, Republicans had the chance to highlight how eagerly Gore's Democrats sacrifice personal freedom to radical environmentalism. They blew it.