The Presidential Campaign and our Energy Future: Can Reality Replace Rhetoric?

Over the past weekend we got to hear President Bush, Senator McCain and then Senator Obama all supporting drilling for oil off our coasts. Both Bush and McCain maintain that the way to reduce gasoline prices is to develop more supplies of oil. They argue, and polling shows people believe, that drilling for more oil will lower prices. Although Obama is not crazy about drilling in fragile environments, he’s willing to allow some drilling in exchange for a bill that would promote alternative energy.

For a brief moment I admired the artfulness and subtly of Obama’s perspective-a little carefully controlled drilling can’t do much harm, as long as our policy encourages renewable energy. I’ve also read those polls that show the American public buys the argument that more drilling will lower their gasoline prices. It is obvious that McCain was using Obama’s opposition to drilling to show that Obama was out of touch and not a “regular guy”. So, to show he’s a regular guy, Obama supports a little drilling to try to defuse McCain’s attack. McCain then shifts his argument and attacks Obama for changing his position and being a “flip flopper”. It is truly a shame that McCain thinks that the only way to become President is to hire Bush’s political team and stoop to Bush’s strategy of character assassinating or “swift boating” his opponent. This year’s model is to tag Obama with Britney and Paris. This is really pathetic. It’s too bad that Obama is responding to all of this with messages that seem inconsistent with his principles.

Presidential campaigns have become media products that need candidates to rise and fall in the polls to create drama, build audience and sell advertising. Obama goes overseas, plays well and pulls ahead in the polls, only to return to be attacked by McCain and then fall back into a tie. Let’s all get ready for Obama’s convention build up, VP soap opera and brief post convention bounce, followed by a rapid version of the same for McCain. Stay tuned for next week’s episode of “as the campaign turns…” This is not a media conspiracy, just the normal dynamic of Presidential politics.

Fortunately, there is a chance for reality to intervene in this campaign of images and distortion. There will be live, nationally televised debates, and there is also the reality of war and peace, global warming and our deteriorating economy. These realities are more difficult to spin, and perhaps will supplant the back and forth image dance we seem to be watching today.

This leads to the reality of this gas drilling issue. The problem with the Bush-McCain argument on supply and demand is that demand is growing. In fact in China and India it is growing at a far faster pace then even a rapidly growing supply will be able to handle. Assuming these guys can read the same data I can read, they must know that drilling for oil will not increase supplies enough to truly lower prices here in America. It is more of the same shameful pandering and symbolic “position taking” that is common to our electoral politics.

Obama is trying to demonstrate a statesman-like willingness to compromise, and I know this will sound naïve, but I think he has missed an opportunity to educate the American people about the futility of increased oil drilling. Drilling for oil to solve our energy crisis is a little like building another highway or adding a lane to an existing highway to ease traffic. At first, the traffic moves more freely and the congestion problem goes away. Then people start to move out to where the new road goes and soon there is more traffic than there ever was. The solution to auto traffic is not better roads because better roads lead to more cars. The solution to congested roads is alternative or mass transportation.

Similarly, the solution to higher gasoline prices is to stop using gasoline altogether. Fossil fuels are finite. While they are still relatively plentiful, they are only created once in the life of this planet. At some point they will become scarce and will eventually be used up. Things that become scarce eventually go up in price. We have built our economy around mobility and personal transportation. Now, it seems that our approach to development is being imitated all over the world, particularly in Asia. The winner in the world economy is going to be the nation that builds the first renewable energy industry. Drilling for oil is not going to help us win that competition.

In the past week, gasoline prices in this region started to head closer to $4 than the $5 that seemed to be coming. Still, consumers have changed their behavior, possibly for the foreseeable future. People are driving less and buying smaller cars. They are abandoning SUVs and the companies that build them are losing money. This is a moment when we have an opportunity to redefine our energy future. We know that our current President is not up to the job of redefining our approach to energy. That challenge will be left to our next President. At the moment, it’s not clear that either of them is capable of providing meaningful leadership in this critical area.

The Presidential Campaign and our Energy Future: Can Reality Replace Rhetoric?