Prices at the pump are rising, and Americans are none too happy about it. Small wonder that President Obama's approval ratings have fallen like a sack of hammers in recent weeks: Nothing annoys voters quite like a $75 fill-up at their local service station.
But if paying $4-a-gallon for regular wasn't painful enough, filling station sticker shock has launched a deluge of nonsensical proposals to lower the price of gas. Perhaps the most dishonest of these is a renewed call for domestic oil drilling.
While anyone is welcome to argue the merits of increased U.S. production — well-paying jobs in oil-producing states like Texas, for instance — lowering gasoline prices isn't one of them. That's because the amount of oil involved is no more than a drop in the bucket compared to worldwide demand and production.
Drilling in the U.S., whether it's off the coast of Florida or the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, could no more affect global oil prices than a thunderstorm in Dundalk affects the price of bottled water around the country.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. has 21.317 billion barrels of oil that could be tapped inland or off-shore, compared to 1,342.207 billion barrels available worldwide. That's 1.6 percent. And the nation's appetite for oil is far greater than what domestic oil producers could ever supply.
So "drill, baby, drill," may sound good as a campaign slogan, but it's nonsensical in reality. Even the impact on imports or the country's imbalance in foreign trade would be marginal at best.
But that hasn't stopped Republicans on Capitol Hill who want to take advantage of the wave of anger that accompanies energy price increases. Their recent efforts to gut environmental regulations like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's overdue greenhouse gas rulemaking show little sign of abatement.
Clearly, the GOP would rather risk a repeat of last year's disastrous Gulf oil spill than ensure producers like British Petroleum are held to the highest possible safety and environmental standards. So House leaders are pounding away at the Obama administration for not letting big oil treat the East Coast as their own big rig camping ground and toxic waste dump.
The best U.S. strategy for lowering the cost of energy is to use less oil through conservation and the development of alternative energy. But that's the kind of "eat your vegetables" answer that's tough to sell to consumers who would rather drive a big honking SUV than switch to a more fuel-efficient vehicle or ride public transit or bike to work.
That's probably why the Obama administration announced last week the launch of a Justice Department work group to investigate price manipulation and the influence of commodity trading on energy costs. Conspiracy theories are far easier for most people to digest than the unpleasant reality of energy dieting.
What politicians ought to be telling the public is to face facts. It's not within the power of a U.S. president or Congress to wave a wand and suddenly cause worldwide petroleum prices to fall like it was 2008 and the recession was killing demand for oil again.
The country needs a more rational, forward-thinking energy policy than ever before, one that reduces U.S. dependency on petroleum — period. But it's a complex issue and a global challenge with no simple solution. As Mr. Obama recently noted, that will require both an end to wasteful subsidies for old energy sources and investment in promising new alternatives.
Trumpeting the old canard that all the U.S. needs is more domestic drilling only undermines that effort and allows the oil industry to fatten its profit margins.