Politicizing gas prices

Politicizing gas prices

June 28th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Local gas prices reflect the national decline. Carmen Fazio changes his sign at Kankus No. 9 at Wilcox Boulevard and Tunnel Boulevard.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

The price of gasoline in the Chattanooga area is at or below $3 a gallon at many stations. The average price per gallon across the United States is at a five-month low. Some experts predict that prices will continue to drop. That's great news for U.S. consumers, who spend about $200 million per day less on gas now than in April when the average was nearly $4 a gallon. It's not so good news for the politicians and ideologues -- mainly Republican and mainly on the right -- who made the price of gasoline a major political issue in the late winter and early spring.

When gas prices were on the rise, many Republicans, blamed President Barack Obama and his energy policies for the price increases. There was no basis for the charge, but that didn't stop the abuse.

Likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and GOP members of Congress used rising gas prices to score political points. Trouble is, Obama had little control over the rise in the price of gas then, or the fall in prices now.

The president made that clear from the outset. Obama said that global markets -- not domestic policy or presidential desires -- were responsible for the rise and fall of gas prices. He still says the same, honorably refusing to take credit for the current drop in prices that puts millions of bucks in consumer pockets and pocketbooks every day.

Republicans who were so noisy about gas prices when they were on the rise are silent now that they are dropping. They can't afford to speak. To admit they unfairly placed blame on Obama for rising prices would mean that they would have to praise him now that prices are falling. They won't do that.

That makes things a bit tricky for Romney and other high-profile Republicans. Romney, who said in March that he "absolutely" believed that Obama was responsible for high gas prices, now refuses to publicly address gas prices. A spokesman says that Romney is now focusing on making energy more affordable. That's too convenient.

If Romney -- and the others who joined him in lambasting the president -- were fair, they would admit publicly that if Obama was responsible for rising prices that he deserves credit when they decline. Given the nature of presidential politics, that won't happen.

It's unlikely, too, that attacks on Obama's energy policies will abate. They are almost sure to accelerate, with the president's offshore drilling ban as a prime target.

In a TV ad airing in Virginia -- identified as one of the crucial states in the presidential election -- a narrator asks, "President Romney's first 100 days, what will they mean" for the state? The answer, for those familiar with Romney's rhetoric, is predictable.

If elected Romney would repeal Obamacare and attack the deficit on his first day in office. By day 100, the ad intones, Romney would reverse Obama's offshore drilling ban, creating thousands of new jobs for the state. The ad doesn't say it directly, but the implication is that more offshore drilling will bring down gas prices even as it provides jobs. The evidence that it could do either is flimsy.

It's unlikely that removing the ban on offshore drilling will create a a large number of jobs for Virginians, as the ad claims. Work on offshore rigs and platforms requires special skills and many of the newly created jobs likely would be filled by experienced workers from other states. The ad doesn't address that. Rather, it offers a false promise that promotes the Romney philosophy and that supports Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, a party stalwart and long-time proponent of offshore gas and oil exploration.

More suspect still is the implication that ending the offshore drilling ban will lead to a drop in U.S. gas prices. That might be Republican dogma, but there's not much to support the veracity of the claim. There is, though, consistent research that supports a contrarian view.

An Associated Press analysis of 36 years of data "showed no statistical correlation between how much oil comes out of U.S. wells and the price at the pump. Don't believe the media? In a survey of economists conducted by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, not one disagreed with the statement that "Changes in gasoline prices over the past 10 years have predominately been due to market factors rather than U.S. federal economic or energy policies." That's pretty definitive evidence that Romney's emphasis on offshore drilling as a solution to high gas prices is more talk than fact.

Indeed, the best approach to resolving the nation's energy crisis -- which includes sharply fluctuating gas prices -- is the one espoused by Obama. It is a reasoned strategy that promotes clean and green energy and that focuses on domestic oil, wind and solar power and biofuels. Romney can offer no useful alternative to that policy other than unfair attacks on the president and campaign promises that are unlikely to bear fruit.