John McCain Wants to Drill in Your Tolilet: Part II

Two months ago, I wrote a column saying that John McCain wants to drill in your toilet. I was joking at the time, but that comment turned out to be pretty much accurate. The Republicans' top slogan going into the fall elections is "drill here, drill now." It all depends on your definition of "here."

Anyhow, the basic point is straightforward. There is very little oil potentially available in the areas in which the Republicans are anxious to drill here and now. The Energy Information Agency (EIA) - remember, these people work for President Bush - tells us that the oil in the offshore-protected areas will eventually add about 0.2 percent to world's oil output. This would be sufficient to lower the price of gas by 3-4 cents a gallon.

Furthermore, even with the best efforts to drill here and now, it will still take many years to get any oil whatsoever from these protected areas. Regardless of how anxious Senator McCain and the Republicans might be to damage the environment, oil companies will not just spend tens of millions of dollars blindly drilling deepwater wells. They first have to survey the terrain carefully and then dig test wells. The EIA projects that it will take ten years before we get the first drops of oil from drilling in currently protected areas and close to twenty years before we get our full 3-4 cent a gallon savings. That won't do a lot of good for people trying to make ends meet this year.

The remarkable story here is that all the people who follow energy policy know these basic facts. Yet, the Republicans are pushing the "drill here, drill now" line because they are betting the public can be kept in the dark. Just as tens of millions of people supported the war in Iraq because they thought Saddam Hussein was tied to the attack on the World Trade Center, the Republicans are betting they gain votes in November because tens of millions of people will believe that they are offering a credible plan to substantially reduce gas prices in the near future.

In this respect, they are counting on the fact that the major national media, outlets like CBS, NBC, NPR, The New York Times and Washington Post are completely incompetent. The job of the media is to inform the public. If the media effectively informed the public on this issue, they would be telling people the Republicans are proposing an energy policy that can at best have a very modest impact on oil prices in the distant future, and no impact whatsoever for the near-term future.

Few, if any, news stories have made this point thus far. As a result, polls show the majority of voters believe that drilling in offshore protected areas can have a substantial impact on oil prices in the very near future.

Perhaps, we can introduce a system of merit pay for reporters and news producers in which their pay depends on their success in educating the public on key issues, just as many school districts make the pay of schoolteachers dependent on how well their students perform.

Schoolteachers whose students perform badly don't get raises and could even get fired. Imagine that we applied the same standards to CBS, NBC, NPR and The Washington Post. If their audience couldn't answer basic questions about important public policy issues, then the reporters responsible get their pay cut. If the audiences are especially poorly informed, then the reporters get fired.

Unfortunately, this sort of accountability in the media doesn't exist. Most political reporters sound like high school drama coaches as they spend their time talking about candidates' appearance and speaking mannerisms. They almost never bother to discuss the positions advocated by the candidates - that might require a few minutes of real work.

Of course, the candidates know the reporters won't ever bother to verify the claims they make, which gives them incentive to make whatever outlandish claims are most convenient. This is why we have Senator McCain promising to drill for oil in our toilets and most voters actually believing it will lower the price of gas.

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