Friday, April 29, 2005

Devil's Advocate

Politics is the art of the possible. Let me gently suggest the implausible for a moment, and that is that George W. Bush is actually doing the best he can for the American public in a moment of extreme crisis. Let me take as given that he knows about the issues of oil depletion. Does he tell the public the jig's up for oil? No, too problematic, and besides, too many conflicting opinions. Certainly, few of his top level pals (well, save for that pesky Simmons fellow) are going to go on record saying something like "oh, oil's about to run out, better start looking for alternatives." Say that, and you can kiss whatever cooperation you've got with the Saudis goodbye. And make no mistake, we'll need every last drop of oil the Saudis can spare.

No, you have to be subtler than that. So you let Simmons alone, knowing the worrywart will soon enough publish his spreadsheets of doom. What next?

You could start funding research worth millions and billions of dollars on alternative energy. It looks good at first, but realistically, how many inventions from government labs ever make it into usable, cheap form -- and make no mistake, cheap is the primary word here -- once the scientists get past the proof-of-concept stage? Fuel cells, hydrogen cars, high-efficiency solar panels -- all those things can be made, of course, but all of them are expensive and tend to end up in the space program anyway because nobody can afford the production models.

So, what, then? You give in to the oil companies because because they're your golfing buddies and because they gave the GOP so damn much money -- in short, because you have to. So, big tax breaks for exploration, check.

Anything else?

Mostly, you pray that everyone else actually gets it. This isn't the kind of problem the government can actually solve well, not in a democracy, anyway; the problem is the expressed will of the people, and that will involves driving cars, lots of them, and big ones. Any politician telling them they have to get into smaller cars with punier engines is in the fast lane to becoming an Out; just ask Jimmy Carter. No, the first order of business for any politician is to stay elected. So honesty isn't going to happen. Certainly, the public won't go in for any totalitarian style "forced relocations" -- if suchlike is even necessary (and it isn't). But there's going to be a lot of losers in the medium term, and the important thing is getting past the midterm elections without too much carnage. Hence, the lowering of expectations about relief from oil price hikes. ("... the energy bill is certainly no quick fix. You can't wave a magic wand.")

The jittery guys on the Merc trading floor -- now, they'll be useful. When the price of oil crashes through the sixty dollars a barrel figure, that's when people will take notice. And they will, eventually. And the majors -- well, they're about to have their own problems, as depletion takes them down, too, and nobody can miss that. Contributions or no, they're in for a rough ride on the way down, and there is absolutely nothing Bush can do to help them.

Will of the people. Those aren't the words they'll have swirling in their heads as they fill up at four dollar gas. But they should be. The people have to want to pursue alternative energy sources. They have to accept and even embrace conservation in a way no political leader hoping to win the next election can now justify explaining. To that end, you have to hope T. Boone Pickens is right about oil prices, and sooner rather than later.