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The Days of Cheap Oil are Over: The Elephant in the Room
When gas prices are high and the oil companies are seeing massive profits, going after the likes of Exxon and BP is good politics. The Democrats know this, which is why they counter the GOP's push to expand drilling by playing up the greed and malfeasance of the oil companies. Both tactics are cheap, and one is a falsehood: expanded domestic drilling will not significantly impact the price of gas at the pump. Not now, not in 20 years (even the conservative EIA says as much). And sure, beating up on oil companies makes good political theater, but it's not exactly productive in the long term. What neither party will admit is that the days of cheap oil are gone for good, and that the only true way to bring transportation costs down is to invest in alternatives like mass transit and electric vehicles.For the record, it's indeed egregious that uber-profitable oil companies continue to rake in multibillon dollar subsidies. And removing them all may indeed give cleaner fuels a leg up. But right now, Democrats are fighting tooth and nail to get a paltry $4 billion subsidy taken away from the oil industry -- a drop in the bucket. If Democrats spend their time and political capital chipping away at subsidies, they may win some notches on their belt, but it will mean little towards the aim of keeping transportation affordable -- and clean -- in the long run.
Meanwhile, Republican efforts to open up every last corner of the nation to offshore drilling in a desperate attempt to suck out every last drop of oil won't help either. The proven reserves out there aren't enough to bring prices down (remember, oil futures are a globally traded commodity), and they won't last us all that long, either. By most counts, we've already hit, or are about to hit, peak oil. And demand, of course, is only skyrocketing around the world, especially in the BRIC countries.
But that doesn't change the fact that Americans are still tethered to their cars. And thus, proclaiming that "the days of affordable oil are well behind us" likely won't be a popular campaign slogan for a long time to come. But there are ways that pols can capitalize on innovations that will drive down the costs of transportation, and begin laying the groundwork to sell such a message in the near future.
For instance, the DOE recently partnered with Google to show electric car charging stations on Google Maps. Obama called for putting a million EVs on the road by 2010. His plans for high speed rail are better known (and more roundly opposed). But such programs and initiatives are referred to in politispeak as if they're cool toys that advanced countries should have, not solutions for making transportation more affordable in the future. This link must be strengthened.
It won't be easy to do -- Americans have proven absurdly averse to looking into the future (just check out our feelings about climate change). But if we want the cost of transportation to come down, we're going to have to invest in cleaner, more efficient alternatives to fossil fuel-based transit. As we climb out of the recession, Americans will likely grow increasingly eager to embrace such technologies -- even throughout the slump, support for clean energy was surprisingly strong. Savvy leaders will emphasize that these technologies will bring costs down in the long run, help reduce pollution, and stimulate growth in the industries of tomorrow.
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