An Empty Promise
Wednesday, 13 August 2008

By BOB HERBERT

Senator John Kerry was on the phone and the words were coming in a rush.

“It’s a completely fraudulent argument,” he said. “It’s misleading. It’s snake oil salesmanship of the worst order.”

He was talking about the latest smoke screen in the presidential election, the bogus contention that lifting restrictions on offshore oil drilling would somehow, in the foreseeable future, bring down the price of gasoline for American motorists.

This absurd contention is now one of the main issues of the campaign. It’s the latest example of a very real fear (that sky-high energy prices will undermine the average family’s standard of living) being exploited shamelessly for political purposes.

Senator John McCain told cheering bikers at a giant motorcycle rally in South Dakota: “We’re gonna drill offshore! We’re gonna drill here, and we’re gonna drill now!” He told an audience in Lafayette Hill, Pa.: “We have to drill here and drill now. ... Drill here and drill now.”

With Senator McCain and the Republicans painting a false portrait of drilling as a method of relief for today’s high prices, and with polls showing the G.O.P. gaining traction on this issue, Senator Barack Obama has eased off his previous opposition to new offshore leases.

And so dies the possibility of the presidential campaign offering any real clarification of this important issue.

As Senator Kerry and many others have pointed out, it would be nearly 10 years before any oil at all would be realized from new offshore leases. So your adorable 7- or 8-year-old would be just about 17 and clamoring for a license when this new oil started coming online.

Maximum capacity from these new leases wouldn’t be reached until 2030, when that 7- or 8-year-old is approaching 30, finished with college and graduate school, and very likely married with children.

And even then — after more than two decades and who knows how many graduations, weddings, funerals and family cars — even then, the amount of oil expected to come from these leases would have little or no effect on the price of gasoline at the pump.

Assuming that everything over all those years goes all right, it is estimated that an additional 200,000 barrels of oil a day would come from the additional offshore drilling. That’s a tiny share of the world’s daily output of 85 million or so barrels.

Here’s what the Energy Information Administration, the statistical agency that provides official data for the federal government, had to say about the anticipated additional output from offshore drilling:

“Because oil prices are determined on the international market ... any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant.”

Did anyone mention that to the bikers who were so fired up by John McCain’s “drill here and drill now” mantra? Or to the 63 percent of respondents to an ABC News poll who want the embargo on new offshore drilling to be lifted by the federal government?

I wonder how they would have responded if they had been told that lifting the offshore restrictions would risk serious environmental damage to the U.S. coastline over the next several decades while having no significant effect on the price of gasoline at the pump.

Public officials should be disabusing the electorate of its delusions, not encouraging them. The widespread mistaken notions about the potential impact of offshore drilling on gasoline prices reminds me of the large percentages of Americans who were encouraged to believe, and did believe — erroneously — that Iraq and Saddam Hussein had something to do with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

I wonder if the electorate will ever wise up. We’ve known, or should have known, since the 1970s that the day of reckoning on energy would come. The U.S., blessed with so many resources, is no longer blessed with an abundance of oil.

Jimmy Carter, for all his faults, was on the case when it came to energy. He saw the challenge as “the moral equivalent of war,” and dared to ask the public to make sacrifices as part of a coordinated national effort.

Senator Kerry, in accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 2004, said: “Our energy plan will invest in new technologies and alternative fuels and the cars of the future so that no young American in uniform will ever be held hostage to our dependence on oil from the Middle East.”

Former Vice President Al Gore has tried, more than any other public figure in recent years, to raise the consciousness of Americans by dramatically illustrating, not just the enormity of the energy challenge, but creative and practical ways of dealing with it.

How pathetic that in the midst of a presidential campaign the loudest voices we are hearing on this subject are crying: “Drill! Drill! Drill!”

Bob Herbert joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in 1993. His column comments on politics, urban affairs and social trends.

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