Take the red pill, not the red herring, on oil

When the cowboys and Arabs draw down
On each other at noon,
In the cool dusty air of the city boardroom,
Will you stand by a passive spectator
Of the market dictators?
Will you discreetly withdraw
With your ear pressed to the boardroom door?
Will you hear when the lion within you roars?
Will you take to the hills?

……………………“Home,” Roger Waters (1987)

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama on Friday softened his opposition to lifting the federal moratorium on off-shore oil exploration.

“My interest is in making sure we’ve got the kind of comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices,” Obama said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post.

“If, in order to get that passed, we have to compromise in terms of a careful, well thought-out drilling strategy that was carefully circumscribed to avoid significant environmental damage – I don’t want to be so rigid that we can’t get something done,” Obama said.

This, close on the heels of a Public Policy Institute of California’s poll finding that 51 percent of Californians now support allowing more oil drilling off the California coast, a 10-percentage-point increase from one year ago and the first time since PPIC began asking this question in July 2003 that more residents favor than oppose more oil drilling.

So what has changed? To drill or not to drill – a soliloquy crafted by campaign consultants to rival Hamlet’s for existential value – has become a central debate of this year’s presidential campaign. But why, exactly, is that?

Gas prices spiked, it’s true. They’re starting to come back down now, at least somewhat – I know I just paid 35 cents per gallon less last week than I had about two months ago. Yet even discussing that is a red herring – perhaps the biggest red herring of the year. And fond as I am of healthy oceans, the environmental concerns aren’t even the main point either, it seems to me.

The federal government estimates it would take about five years between the start of leasing and the start of production – in other words, lift the moratorium tomorrow, and you won’t see a drop of oil from it until at least 2013 – and “would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices” for about 13 years after that. And when it does finally impact prices, it’ll be by pennies.

The fact is, we as Americans have had cheap gas for so long that we think we’re entitled to it. We’re not. Nobody is. And whether it’s now, or in 18 years when a few more drops of domestic crude save you a few cents at the corner gas station, we’re gonna have to get used to that idea.

Hey, I don’t like paying so much at the pump either, as my dwindling savings-account balance will testify. But the pain we feel at the pump today is just like any other pain – a symptom that something is wrong. We should feel the pain, think about it, and instead of just taking an aspirin of new, minor oil drilling to assuage it, perhaps we should consider how to cure the pain’s cause.

Our oil-based economy is based on a finite, dwindling world supply; will always be subject to the viccissitudes of an international market; and is at odds with our professed desire to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

Some advocates of lifting the oil-drilling moratorium call it a “bridge” to the alternative energy research and development which eventually will wean us at least off foreign oil, perhaps off all oil. I’d have more confidence in that if I saw these same people putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to funding such research and development; too many of them seem intent upon building (h/t to Ted Stevens) a “bridge to nowhere.”

So as oil companies keep posting record-breaking profits — Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and the Bay Area’s own Chevron — will voters be lulled into taking the blue pill, a knee-jerk reaction that ultimately will do them little or no good, or will they take the red pill and use this painful time to force our leaders to truly address our collective future?

When do we truly start looking beyond oil?

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.