Don't expect much help in kicking the oil habit


WASHINGTON -- When I was in Zimbabwe during the beginning of the country's fuel crisis a few years ago, a popular joke about President Robert G. Mugabe's inept policies described a driver sitting in a long line of cars waiting for his turn at the gas pump.

Unable to bear the wait any longer, he fumed, "I'm going to drive to the presidential mansion and give Mugabe a piece of my mind."

But, alas, when he arrived at the mansion, he found that the line of cars there was even longer!

A similar nightmare must have been swimming around in President Bush's head when he asserted in his State of the Union address last week that "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world."

It hardly qualified as a new statement, except that we usually hear it from Democrats and environmental activists, not the head of the most oil-friendly White House administration in U.S. history. If Americans are addicted to oil, the Bush administration has been a major pusher.

I don't remember Mr. Bush admonishing the public for its oil "addiction" when he was working for oil companies such as Harken or Arbusto. Vice President Dick Cheney was chief executive officer of Halliburton, a very large oil and gas services company..

By now, Mr. Bush should know as well as anyone that Americans are not so much addicted to oil as dependent on it in the absence of better alternatives. That's simple economics. One becomes a junk food junkie when better food is unavailable or unaffordable.

You could see this in the way we Americans howled when our gasoline hit $3 a gallon, a price ceiling that much of the developed world broke through decades ago, mostly because of the various taxes governments put on fuel consumption. The European consumers' response was to drive more fuel-efficient cars and invest in better mass transit systems. The Japanese auto industry's response was to produce fuel-efficient hybrids that have proved to be wildly successful with Americans.

What is to be the American response? Were Mr. Bush to break with typical political tradition and tell the truth to the public, he would point out that history shows rising oil prices to be the most effective way to nudge the country out of its oil dependency because it reduces demand. But too much candor about such sensitive matters can be political suicide, especially in an election year.

Instead, Mr. Bush's oil remarks sounded as if they were inserted into his laundry list of promises in response to (1) opinion polls that show his approval ratings slumped to around 45 percent and (2) news that ExxonMobil Corp. had reported the highest profit in U.S. history .

Among other worries these days, the public wants fuel-price relief. The American people, like that fabled Zimbabwean in the gasoline queue, wanted some kind of response from the White House regarding their fuel complaints, and the president was trying to give it to them.

But will Mr. Bush back up his words with action? It was not a good sign that he called for more nuclear power and alternative fuels research just as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado was preparing to lay off researchers working on plant-based fuels.

When liberals and environmentalists talk about oil addictions, they often talk in their next breath about new supply or pricing regulations, federal subsidies or tax breaks for alternative fuels and taxes for "windfall profits." But there's probably no way that the fiercely anti-tax Mr. Bush will back up his addiction rhetoric with taxes or any other serious action to reduce oil demand by raising prices or reducing supplies.

New legislation, including a higher federal gas tax and higher vehicle mileage standards, would help to reduce our nation's energy dependence, although it also would require the sort of sacrifices that Mr. Bush has been loath to impose in his war against terrorism.

If Mr. Bush is true to his free-market conservative beliefs, he probably thinks in his heart of hearts that high fuel prices alone will create new demand for fuel-efficient cars and alternative fuels. He could be right. But for those seeking relief soon, the free market could use some government help - before angry drivers start lining up in front of the White House.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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