At Tuesday night’s presidential debate, a citizen asked President Obama whether he agreed with Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s statements that it’s not his department’s policy to lower gas prices.
Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney directly answered the man’s question, defaulting instead to energy talking points. They might as well have handed the man campaign brochures and moved on to the next question.
The question was a missed opportunity to level with the public about energy – solving the problem does not lend itself to bumper-sticker sloganeering, every energy resource has its pros and cons, and America is not in complete control of its energy destiny.
The last point deserves further comment. The Department of Energy cannot control gasoline prices, no matter who’s in charge. Supply and demand largely dictate what you pay. The price at the neighborhood pump is at the tail end of a long chain that is influenced primarily by the market.
The oil market is global. Prices are the result of global supply and demand factors. Rising domestic supplies would be sold into that global pool. There would be no home-team discount for American drivers. High prices make some harder-to-reach domestic sources—ultra deepwater, for example—profitable to produce. If prices fell below the point at which these sources make money, they wouldn’t be produced.
If it suited them, oil-exporting countries could dial back their production to offset higher U.S. output in order to keep prices high. That is a good reason, among many, to use energy as efficiently as possible. The cheapest gallon of gasoline in town is the gallon you don’t have to buy.
Energy efficiency has bipartisan appeal. Polls consistently show the public values saving energy and supports policies to encourage it. If there is one point on which Republican and Democratic leaders should find common ground, it ought to be energy efficiency.