Contradicting Goals: Cheap Gas and Lower Carbon Emissions

The Phenomenon of Political Contradictions

Energy policy frequently highlights some glaring contradictions among lawmakers. Some politicians who have railed against our dependence on petroleum and who insist we must reduce carbon emissions turn around and introduce legislation aimed at making gasoline cheaper. Imagine that an advocate for more exercise and better eating was also advocating cheaper fast food — and you have a situation akin to the mutually exclusive energy policies of some of our political leaders.

Jekyll & Hyde

I have never been able to reconcile what goes on inside the heads of Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) or Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Congressman Ed Markey, a longtime advocate of reducing carbon emissions, wants to open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to lower fuel prices.

Congressman Markey has long been a passionate advocate of legislation designed to reduce carbon emissions. Once, after a huge iceberg reportedly broke away from Greenland, Congressman Markey suggested that this provided “plenty of room for global warming deniers to start their own country,” further stating that it is “unclear how many giant blocks of ice it will take to break the block of Republican climate deniers in the US Senate who continue [to] hold this critical clean energy and climate legislation hostage.”

That’s Ed Markey, who thinks we need to cut down on our fossil fuel usage to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Now meet Congressman Ed Markey, who has introduced legislation designed to make sure we don’t cut back on our fossil fuel usage:

A group of House Democrats introduced legislation Thursday to tap the country’s oil reserves in response to rising prices.

“This is the time to deploy a responsible amount of reserves before it is too late,” Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the author of the new bill, told reporters.

Markey’s bill represents the latest effort by Democrats to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), a 727-million-barrel emergency stockpile of oil. But the proposal faces opposition from Republicans and at least one senior House Democrat.

The legislation would require that over the next six months at least 30 million barrels of oil be released from the SPR. President Obama ultimately has the authority to release oil from the SPR.

Senator Charles Schumer is playing the role of speculator once again, calling for the U.S. to tap the SPR.

Now meet Senator Charles Schumer. Senator Schumer, another who has long been concerned about the “looming threat of climate change” also wants us to pay less for gasoline while presumably using less of it. While Congressman Markey also has a long track record of trying to force releases of oil from the SPR, Senator Schumer’s track record on this issue is more “impressive.”

Senator Schumer has lobbied to have the SPR tapped since at least 1999, when he cited — and I am not making this up — oil’s “meteoric ascent to nearly $25 per barrel” as justification for taking oil from the SPR. He got his way in 2000, as President Clinton caved leading up to the elections. When oil hit $30 a barrel in March 2004 (also an election year), Schumer again called for release of oil from the SPR in a letter to President Bush — writing that it was “now or never.” He further wrote “In January of 2003, I urged you to utilize the fuel reserves when the price of unleaded gasoline was $1.50 in New York.”

Just last month in a letter to President Obama, Senator Schumer once more called for the “Administration to immediately access the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to offset the rising cost of gasoline.” He justified his request with a white lie, because there has certainly been no “severe energy supply interruption” as Senator Schumer claims:

Your administration has the clear statutory authority to access these reserves in accordance with the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. According to this Act, following a finding by the President that a “severe energy supply interruption” has occurred, an interruption which the situation in the Libya has caused, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve may be utilized.”

You Can’t Have it Both Ways

We can certainly debate whether it is in the best long-term interest of the country to have higher fossil fuel prices. My own position is that I am in no way opposed to cheap energy, but when we are dealing with depleting resources we need to use those resources wisely so we don’t put future generations at a serious disadvantage. And there is no debate that higher prices are an effective way of causing consumers to use our fossil fuel resources more conservatively — something these two lawmakers should applaud.

I do understand the downside of higher fossil fuel prices. I am not just a disinterested observer; I buy fuel and am impacted by higher prices as well. But I have also responded to higher prices as have many others — by getting more fuel efficient. We are not helpless consumers; there are actions we can take to minimize the impact of higher prices.

And keep in mind that prices have risen sharply over the past decade for a good reason — and it isn’t because oil companies or speculators became greedier. It is because supplies are getting tighter relative to demand. Trying to keep prices artificially low will simply exacerbate the price run-up in the long-term by depleting supplies that much quicker.

Over the past couple of years, the U.S. has seen a massive decline in carbon dioxide emissions due to lower demand for oil. Hypothetically, if Congressman Markey was successful and used the SPR to rein in prices (something I don’t believe could have anything more than a short term impact in any case), then he will manage to get carbon dioxide emissions headed back up. Then I suppose he can go pass more legislation to bring down those soaring carbon dioxide emissions.

Followup Essay: The Purpose, and Wisdom of Tapping the SPR

In Senator Schumer’s letter to then-President Bush, he made the following claim: “The petroleum reserves are intended to provide relief at times when working families are struggling to make ends meet.” While Senator Schumer’s belief may explain why he has repeatedly attempted to use the SPR in a speculative fashion, in the next essay we will explore whether 1). That is the purpose of the SPR; 2). If using it in that fashion is wise.