Former Shell president John Hofmeister’s prediction that gasoline prices could hit $5 per gallon in 2012 represents both an enormous challenge and an important opportunity for environmentalists working to stop global warming, protect our coasts, and to stop the destructive expansion of Canadian tar sands and other dirty fuels.
We should seize this moment to launch a major campaign to end our dependence on oil by investing in new technologies and building the clean transportation alternatives that will protect our environment and middle class families from our dependence on oil. With America at a crossroads, we should recognize this challenge clearly so that we can respond effectively with real solutions instead of defending against the tired “drill baby drill” mantra that would devastate our environment with no discernable impact on prices.
Oil prices above $5 per gallon would make oil dependence the paramount energy and economic issue of the next Congress. The economic and national security costs of rising oil prices will be enormous. Oil already is our leading source of global warming pollution, smog, and other air pollutants, and as the BP oil spill demonstrated, drilling for oil threatens ecological destruction on a large scale. All of these environmental hazards will grow more severe if our country moves towards dependence on even dirtier sources of fuel.
In reality, the increase in oil prices is driven by massive increases in demand in developing economies, where exploding economic growth over the past decade has put hundreds of millions more cars on the road, guzzling oil at an unprecedented rate. Increasing production of dirty fuels will add billions in profits for oil companies and deepen our addiction to oil, but it will have no significant impact on the burden that rising oil prices pose for middle class families or our economy.
But Big Oil and their allies will blame environmentalists. Hofmeister offers an early version of the message that we will see repeatedly over the next year: the reason you are paying such a brutal cost at the pump is because President Obama has catered to the environmentalists by refusing to allow permits for offshore drilling leases. If the Department of the Interior issues offshore permits in spite of the enormous and obvious risks of deepwater drilling, the story will be that Obama refused to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If he allows drilling in the sensitive ecosystems of the Arctic, they will come up with something else. The story that environmentalists are to blame for you paying more at the pump has a capacity to resonate with voters angry about fuel prices regardless of the underlying facts of the matter.
The threat is that if Big Oil and their allies dominate the message about oil prices, they will use it to drill baby drill through every regulation that has ever protected the public, a wilderness area, or given us a real chance to achieve energy independence.
The opportunity is that if we get ahead of this message, rising oil prices will present environmentalists and groups concerned with the impact of oil dependence on our economy and national security with an opportunity to make the case to the American people for a fundamental transformation of our energy and transportation priorities.
To get that done, we need to unite with our natural allies among veterans, public health advocates, and advocates for the middle class and present the public with an alternative to conservative messaging about drilling and dirty fuels.
The real solution to the crisis of oil dependence is an energy and transportation policy focused on reducing consumption. A clean transportation agenda will not only protect our environment and our climate, but it will protect your family from the impact of rising oil prices. A major investment in public transportation will reduce our oil dependence and provide people with alternatives to driving, as oil gets more expensive. We need to build an infrastructure for promising new technologies like electric vehicles, and setting ambitious fuel efficiency standards that will drive continued investment in new technology. And we need to do a better job planning our neighborhoods so that families can get where they need to go while consuming less oil.
If we can build a movement for serious solutions to oil dependence, then $5 per gallon of gasoline could provide us with momentum to finally begin to end this cycle. Those of us who are tired of the stranglehold that Big Oil has on our economy can seize the opportunity to connect with the middle class, break through partisan gridlock, protect our coasts and our climate from dirty fuels, and achieve significant transportation reform. If we fail to get that message out there, then $5 per gallon gasoline will be the weapon that Big Oil and their allies use to alienate middle class Americans from environmentalists and beat us in every key drilling related campaign.