James Massengale, a Red Bank dad who drives a Ford F-150 pickup, has no intention of cutting back on his driving until U.S. political leaders approve more oil drilling.
“It’s always important to conserve ... but there’s no need to at this point, because we’re sitting on all kinds of oil,” Mr. Massengale said. “There’s all kinds of oil in this United States. The fact that we won’t drill is just astronomically insane.”
Since peaking on July 11 at $147.27 a barrel, oil prices have dropped by more than half, hitting a 14-month low of just below $70 a barrel this past week, largely due to fears of a drop in consumption because of the global economic slowdown.
Although high gas prices have changed the driving habits of many consumers — if not Mr. Massengale — political leaders say now is not the time to rein in plans to promote fuel efficiency and alternative sources.
When a bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators announced a compromise energy bill in August, gas prices were spiking at upwards of $4 a gallon nationwide, and some projections had oil rising to $200 a barrel by the end of the year. Now gas has dropped to below $3 a gallon in some Chattanooga stations and crude oil was priced about $75 a barrel Tuesday.
Still, members of the self-dubbed “Gang of 10,” which includes Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.; Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; say their proposal and focus on energy issues is no less important.
“I think energy will be the focus next year,” Sen. Corker said. “At the end of the day, we cannot lose sight of the fact that energy is important to us as an economic and a national security issue.”
The $84 billion Gang of 10 plan, now endorsed by 20 senators — 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans — includes increased offshore oil drilling and expanded tax credits for alternative fuels and technology.
Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who has called for an “all of the above” solution on energy prices, including increased drilling and conservation measures, said falling gas prices can be a double-edged sword — good for the pocketbook, less incentive for action, legislative or otherwise.
“One of the dangers of gas prices coming down is that it takes the heat off of the issue,” he said. “Everybody knows in the back of their mind that this is going to bite us in the end, and it’s going to keep bringing us to our knees until we make bold decisions on moving us off of oil and diversifying our supply.”
Eric Schubert of Signal Mountain bought a Toyota Prius hybrid three years ago. His vehicle gets about 47 miles per gallon, and he fills up once every two weeks after commuting to work downtown. Now that his wife needs a new car, Mr. Schubert said he’s likely to buy his wife a Prius.
He said Americans should carry some obligation to drive fuel-efficient, environmentally-friendly vehicles, and those who don’t should be penalized.
“I think the government should tax cars by weight,” Mr. Schubert said. “I think you should be entitled to drive whatever you want, but I think you should pay more.”
Though he admits his views might be seen as radical, Mr. Schubert also thinks the government should set a bottom-level price for gas to compel Americans to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles.
ALTERNATIVE FUELS FEELING THE PINCH
Still, the price drop in gasoline, along with the global credit crisis, has some energy analysts saying that renewable energy and fuel efficiency projects could see their prospects grind to a halt.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that renewable-energy stocks have dropped in price by about 45 percent over the last three months, compared to a 23 percent decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in that same period.
Jill Bratina, spokeswoman for Volkswagen of America, which recently announced a new assembly plant at Chattanooga’s Enterprise South industrial park, says the company remains committed to its low-emissions, fuel-efficient cars, including diesel-powered vehicles that it says offers a fuel savings of 35 percent over gas engines.
“We expect Americans to continue to pursue fuel-efficient vehicles, both from a cost savings and environmentally responsible perspective, two things in which Volkswagen excels,” she said.
With Congress focused on combating global warming, along with reducing the country’s reliance on oil from the Middle East, Venezuela and other countries, energy policy must remain a top issue, lawmakers said.
“Electricity prices are going up, and gas prices may go back up,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has proposed a Manhattan Project-like energy plan. “Many people are as concerned about energy independence from unfriendly countries as they are about the price. Then we add to that the need for clean air.”
Sen. Alexander’s proposal includes developing plug-in hybrid cars whose owners could charge their cars from an electric outlet, saving significantly on fuel costs.
The plan also calls for improving solar energy capabilities, advancing nuclear energy, boosting biofuels, encouraging green buildings and funding nuclear fission research and carbon-capture technology.
Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., a rare Democratic proponent of increased drilling, said Congress also needs to continue its focus on conservation. He cited last year’s passage of an increase in automobile fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 — the first increase in more than three decades.
“We can’t afford to lose focus,” he said. “I know I will not, because as soon as the world economy picks up again we will be right back in the same trap. Congress needs to establish a policy that removes our dependence on foreign oil, includes more domestic drilling, and diversifies and expands our renewable and alternative portfolio.”
At the time the Gang of 10 plan was proposed, Congress had been deadlocked for weeks over how to address skyrocketing gas prices, with Republicans insisting on the offshore drilling provisions while Democrats targeted oil speculators and “windfall” profits from oil companies.
But in September, with the credit crisis rearing its head and Congress’s attention abruptly focused on the controversial $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan, the partisan energy feud was put on the back burner. Gang of 10 members say they intend to resurrect their proposal when Congress reconvenes in January.
“We sort of lurch from crisis to crisis,” Sen. Corker said. “We have to maintain focus and pass meaningful energy legislation to move us forward.”
Sen. Chambliss, who is in a tight re-election battle, said even with gas prices on the decline, the Gang of 10 energy bill should not be discarded, and the country needs to become more energy independent.
“I’m hoping it will be very front and center” when Congress reconvenes, he said. “We’ve just got to do it.”
Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...