FOR MORE than 30 years, there has been a fair and straightforward method of analyzing this country's predictable, periodic shouting matches over oil and energy.
Watch the short-term fights over price and supply to see which side the government is on -- yours or theirs, consumers or producers.
And watch the arguments over long-range measures in search of a reasonable balance between production and conservation, between exploration for oil and development of renewable sources.
On this basis, President Bush's oil-soaked administration easily qualifies as the most flagrant bunch of petroleum business shills since the first appearance of deadly serious energy problems in 1973, when the Arab core of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries first flexed its anti-American muscles with too much US acquiescence.
In a period of tight supply and spiking prices, Bush is running a policy that directly supports the sharply higher prices and stands intentionally impotent in the face of OPEC's determination to cut back production. The administration is on "their" side.
For the long-term, the joke of a policy originally cobbled together in secret three years ago by energy producers and Vice President Dick Cheney has eroded to a bunch of producer tax breaks that even a business-dominated Congress seems too embarrassed to take up.
And in politics, the Bush campaign has been spending a few million dollars to warn the country of the real threat to our energy future -- John Kerry. In public Bush warns that higher gasoline taxes imperil us all, and his breathtakingly false TV ad claims Kerry want a 50-cent hike. No matter that he never proposed one and never voted for one, just that he once made one casual statement 11 years ago in favor of the idea as part of a much larger, hypothetical budget deficit reduction package that never made it off a drawing board. The president's energy policy for the masses is implacable opposition to higher gasoline taxes that no one is proposing.
Here's what he is actually doing. At a time when supplies are tight and prospects for improvement are grim, Bush continues to authorize the purchase of oil on the open market for the country's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Bush is buying serious quantities of oil in a high-price market, helping to keep it that way. He is doing so, by the way, in cavalier disregard of a bipartisan majority in the Senate, which recently voted to urge him to stop until the market stabilizes, as did Kerry.
As for OPEC, the cartel's meeting in Vienna last week to reaffirm its determination to cut production still more was well publicized in advance. In the past, both Republican and Democratic administrations have rolled up their sleeves and lobbied, cajoled, and threatened OPEC in the interests of more stability and the world's economic health -- more often than not with some impact.
But not President Bush. His energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, petulantly claims that begging for oil is not in his job description. The administration let OPEC alone and confined itself to a lame White House statement of regret when it acted with impunity last week. Last weekend, OPEC's dominant member -- Saudi Arabia -- started a PR mini-offensive to convince Americans that the current mess is really our fault for not having enough refinery capacity; the Bush people, who are famously linked by family business and geopolitics to this nonfriend, let the insult pass without a response.
No one, John Kerry included, claims there is a short-term fix here that will magically reproduce cheap gas. The point is that by supporting higher prices and treating OPEC with kid gloves, Bush is showing just how tilted his policies are, and in which direction.
Instead of more juicy tax breaks, long-term energy policy has always been seen to require substantive and political balance. On the occasions when America has taken major steps forward -- especially in the 1970s and '80s -- important elements in both parties have come together behind higher mileage standards, investment in new technologies, more domestic production with tough environmental safeguards, and incentives for conservation.
The politics are always dicey -- especially for Democrats in the auto-oriented Midwest in general and Michigan in particular. However, it is noteworthy that in addition to other ideas, Kerry has joined with a Republican of note, John McCain, in proposing that the government require a gradual increase in the average mileage of vehicles to 35 miles per hour by 2015, which would conserve one million barrels of oil every day.
Kerry doesn't talk about this as much as he should, for obvious reasons. Opinion polls actually show strong support for the idea, which has worked just fine in the past without economic disruption or unmanageable cost. This is a classic example of putting the public interest first, and it is an excellent example of the political breakthroughs that can trump special interest politics.
It is also an example of why some people around Kerry think McCain remains worthy of serious consideration as his running mate. Meanwhile, the country can expect even higher prices, and of course many more TV ads.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.