What assumptions do congressmen make about the American people? Do they assume that we're dumb or ill-informed about the energy problems we are experiencing?
Every time there has been a huge spike in gasoline prices, Congress hauls oil company executives before their committees to accuse them of greed, obscene profits and price-fixing. One federal investigation after another of supposed oil company misconduct turns up nothing to substantiate congressional allegations. Unfortunately, the congressional hearings make front-page news and lead the evening television news, but the results of federal investigations that follow are only casually mentioned deep in the body of newspapers and get little or no time on the evening television news. If news media people had an ounce of integrity, they would highlight the federal investigation findings that undermine congressional charges of oil company misconduct, and they would question the congressmen who made those charges.
Americans might prefer heroes-and-villains explanations to problems to reality-based explanations. A politically satisfying explanation for today's $4 a gallon price, when it was less than $2 a gallon a couple of years ago, is because oil company executives have all of a sudden become greedy in their pursuit of "obscene" profits. As such, congressmen, as our heroes, should call these greedy men on the carpet and take sanctions against them in the forms of windfall profits tax, price controls and other measures to take away their ill-gotten gains never mind the effects of the 1980 windfall profits tax. According to the Congressional Research Service, the 1980 windfall profits tax had the effect of decreasing domestic production by 3 percent to 6 percent, thereby increasing American dependence on foreign oil sources by 8 percent to 16 percent.
Controlling the price of anything is very difficult, and it can only be accomplished through the force of government, mostly by restricting supply. The U.S. Congress is a major player in oil supply restriction, and OPEC nations must be laughing all the way to the bank. Congress has banned energy exploration in 85 percent of our coastal waters. Ironically, China, in conjunction with Cuba, is drilling for oil nearer to our coastline than U.S. oil companies are permitted.
According to "We don't have to take $4 gas prices we can drill," written by Sterling Burnett in the Houston Chronicle (May 21), "It is estimated that beneath America's coast lies enough oil to fuel 60 million cars in the United States for 60 years and enough natural gas to heat 60 million homes for 160 years. If allowed access to American oil reserves in Alaska and off our coastline, American oil companies could increase our country's reserves an estimated fivefold, taking the United States from 11th place to fourth among the countries with proven oil reserves."
You say, "What about the environmental impact?" Contrary to the hysterical claims made by environmental extremists, caribou and other wildlife have expanded and flourished in and around Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, unaffected by the oil and gas development.
What's more, Burnett points out that the "two leading environmental groups, the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy, have allowed oil and gas production on several of their most important and unique nature preserves."
Environmentalists come to their senses when nondrilling philosophy costs them something. It's two-faced hypocrisy. At times I've suggested that the best way to get oil exploration in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve is to give the land to environmentalists. You can bet they wouldn't sit on billions of dollars of oil and gas.The true villain in our having to cough up $60, $70 or $80 to fill our gas tanks is the U.S. Congress caught in the grip of environmental extremists. But if reality is too difficult to swallow, we can continue to blame and support the congressional attack on oil executives, turn food into oil and think of other crackpot "solutions."
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.