Alternative Fact of the Week: The missing $40 gas discount

Appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made the kind of audacious claim that was certain to lift the hearts of President Donald Trump’s die-hard supporters. Bragging about his efforts to open up and deregulate oil and gas production in the United States, Mr. Zinke said that gasoline prices, after rising under Barack Obama, were down substantially under President Trump for a savings of about $40 per fill-up.

"As good as the tax bill is, when America pulls up to a pump, and they fill their car up, under the previous administration it was two bucks, four bucks, six bucks, a $100 dollars to fill a car," Mr. Zinke told the cheering crowd, further calculating that it costs about $60 to fill up a car today. “That’s $40 you have in your pocket — every American that would fill up at a pump station — that you wouldn’t have. So, America’s economy is run on made in America energy, and it should be."

Here are the three takeaways from that moment. First, you can bet that Mr. Zinke gets a much better seat at cabinet meetings than, say, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, because this hits all the president’s favorite spots — money in people’s pockets, deregulation, economic growth and even a mention about how awful life was under the last administration (and not a word about Russia meddling or special counsel Robert Mueller III). Second, Mr. Zienke must drive a really, really big car. The third? What a miserable liar the Interior leader is.

As it happens, gasoline prices are a pretty easy thing to check. According to AAA, the average price for a gallon of unleaded regular is currently $2.54. Just before Mr. Trump’s inauguration, it was $2.37. Now, we journalists have been known to be a little fuzzy on math because of all those humanities courses we were forced to take in college, but we feel confident that $2.54 is actually higher than $2.37 (perhaps in the neighborhood of 17 cents). But wait, it’s actually worse than the one-year uptick. Under President Obama, gas prices fell from a high of $3.96 per gallon in mid-2011 to a low of $1.73 in early 2016, which is a decline of 56 percent. That’s even better than Mr. Zinke’s lie.

Did Mr. Zinke get booed out of Prince George’s County for telling such a bald-faced untruth? Of course, he didn’t. This was the kind of outright fabrication that everyone at CPAC is dead-certain must be true. Not just because it glorifies Mr. Trump but because it would seem to glorify deregulation and Mr. Zinke’s recent moves to boost oil and gas exploration and production, including off the coast of Maryland. Never mind that U.S. energy production was already at record levels before Mr. Trump took office. Never mind climate change and the frightening threat is poses around the world. Never mind the impact of domestic fracking on drinking water supplies. Industry profits are down. There’s a fossil fuel supply glut? Who cares? Mr. Zinke this week proposed cutting offshore oil and gas royalties to spur even greater production.

That’s just nuts. If anything, Americans should be clamoring for the Trump administration to raise the cost of gasoline at the pump. That’s right, raise it. Unless the federal government raises the gas tax from its current 1993 levels, there simply isn’t nearly enough money to improve failing roads and bridges, a multi-trillion-dollar deficit Congress has tried to cover over with borrowed money in recent years. Studies show Americans are getting shafted in worsening congestion, potholes and other hazards, and that is ultimately more costly than pennies more per gallon at the pump.

Even energy producers recognize that fossil fuels are a finite commodity better sipped than gulped. Bragging about lower prices at the pump is not only a lie, it’s a foolish aspiration given the nation’s costly infrastructure needs. Even political conservatives are coming to recognize that reality (Mr. Trump is alleged to have floated a 25-cent increase in the tax in a closed-door meeting with a group of Democrats and Republicans last month) — just not perhaps at a place like CPAC where alternative facts are the preferred reality.

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