THE FUNDAMENTAL INCONSISTENCY OF ENERGY POLITICS

Just when the US Northeast was cranking up to high howl over zooming prices of heating oil this month, the Interior Department chimed in with a reminder of the fundamental inconsistency of the country's energy politics.

Just when the US Northeast was cranking up to high howl over zooming prices of heating oil this month, the Interior Department chimed in with a reminder of the fundamental inconsistency of the country's energy politics.

Conveniently forgetting more than a year's worth of fire-sale oil prices, and refusing to learn anything about how markets work, politicians from the Northeast demanded the usual judicial investigations into pricing and threatened to set inventory mandates.

Heating oil prices had risen, of course, because a regional freeze happened while the oil market was short. It's what prices do in those circumstances.

And the effect was amplified in the Northeast, where oil supplies must move by barge because Northeasterners won't allow pipelines to be built. In the cold snap, rivers froze. Barges had trouble moving.

And a cost of aggressive environmentalism became evident to anyone willing to see.

It all follows a pattern manifest in the Interior Department's crowing about a new way to discourage the development of US oil supply.

While the heating oil controversy raged, Interior issued a media advisory hinting about a newly expanded way to keep oil and gas operations off federal land.

The department said Interior Sec. Bruce Babbitt had created a "new land conservation system that ranks alongside National Parks and Wildlife Refuges as a creative approach to protecting America's natural legacy."

The program would expand on Babbitt's innovation with the Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah. The acreage didn't qualify for withdrawal from development under a wilderness designation, so the secretary declared it to be a national monument and locked it up anyway.

The expanded program would turn other "nationally significant landscapes" into what tentatively will be called National Landscape Monuments, managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

In other words, it would give the federal government another way to discourage the exploration for and production of oil and natural gas.

An interesting message emerges from this coincidence of the Interior advisory and the political eruption over prices in the Northeast. It is that consumers should have eternal access to oil but never have to endure elevated prices during shortage or tolerate the minor surface disturbances that help keep shortage at bay.

Inconsistent? Of course. But the inconsistency lies at the core of US governance in matters of energy and the environment.

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