Messaging Energy Wrong

Putting aside any questions about the value of the substance of the Consumer-First Energy Act, let us take a few moments to examine the language and framing of its release. The opening paragraph of the press release:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senators Jeff Bingaman, Max Baucus, Charles Schumer, Byron Dorgan, Maria Cantwell and Bernie Sanders held a press conference today to unveil the Consumer-First Energy Act of 2008, a bill that addresses the root causes of high gas prices. Seven years of the Bush Administration’s disastrous energy policies have enriched Big Oil and market speculators at the expense of American consumers. Democrats are committed to providing relief to consumers and strengthening our economic, energy and national security.

Anything jump out at you?

No.

Let’s highlight a few words:

A bill that addresses the root causes of high gas prices

At least from the material that I’ve seen, here are a few things that not addressed by this bill:

  • Rising demand from China, India, Saudi Arabia, etc
  • America’s McSUV and oil addiction habit
  • Peak Oil
  • Hmmm … these would seem to be some pretty serious root causes.


    What are the words put into the press release?

    “Gas prices are nearing four dollars a gallon and a barrel of oil is around $120 per barrel, yet this President is refusing to take action to put downward pressure on gas prices,” Dorgan said. “We need to immediately stop putting oil underground into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and start addressing the fundamental issue of these sky-high prices by cracking down on the rampant speculation that’s driving up the price of energy.”

    Again, what is the “fundamental issue”?

    Said Cantwell: “We need a cop on the beat to patrol the markets for any illegal activity or manipulation and help ensure Americans are paying prices that are not just fair, but based on supply and demand fundamentals. Now it’s time for Congress to pursue vigilant oversight over these markets to ensure Americans aren’t the victims of a few rogue traders manipulating energy markets. By taking these steps, we may be able to burst the energy price bubble that is dragging down our economy.”

    Aha, price increases are based on “illegal activity or manipulation” and don’t have anything to do with rising demand and constrained ability to produce oil?

    “If we don’t act boldly, the economic situation for millions of middle-class families and working Americans will continue to deteriorate,” Sanders said. “Record-breaking oil and gas prices are a crisis not only for commuters going to work, especially in rural areas, but also for family farmers, small businesses, truckers, airlines, grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, tourists and indeed every sector of our economy. The bottom line is this: Congress and the President can no longer sit idly by while Americans are getting ripped off at the gas pump, the economy deteriorates, and Exxon Mobil, greedy speculators, and OPEC are allowed to make out like bandits pushing oil and gas prices higher and higher.”

    The problem is criminality, that we’re getting “ripped off”. And, that “OPEC are allowed to make out like bandits pushing oil and gas prices higher and higher.”

    None of the comments that are highlighted touch upon peak oil, rising demand around the world, and the fundamental failures of the structure of the US economy and US society in terms of oil-use inefficiencies.

    We need leadership that will speak some truth, that will lead. Suggesting that there are, somehow, these manipulative causes that are driving increased gas prices and that a few legislative tweaks are going to solve everything is pandering nearly to the same level as Energy Dumb’s and Energy Dumber’s “Gas Tax Holiday”.

    There is value to trying to get better oversight. There is value to have stronger controls against price gauging / manipulation. There is value …;

    But the language with this bill suggests that oil prices will be going down. That today’s prices are somehow aberrations and tomorrow’s will be lower in the face of this legislation. Anyone want to really bet that oil will be under $100 barrel in 2012? Under $150? Under $200? Come on, no takers?

    Do you believe that you’ll ever be paying 99.9 cents for a gallon of gasoline at the pump again (as toward the end of the Clinton Administration)?

    The six items, as per the summary, don’t offer any thing of real import to deal with the fundamental causes: too much demand chasing too little supply. As I do not see viable paths toward additional supply to meet growing demand, we need to be working demand reduction (seriously) if you want to cut the price curve. Where do these six bullets suggest any touching of that issue?

    And, finally, in terms of long-term climate strategy, why is ‘lower gas prices’ a good thing? Take a look at this comment on the bill:

    “This bill is a lifeline to families struggling with high fuel prices,” said Daniel J. Weiss, Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “The plan would finally rein in big oil and OPEC – measures that were blocked last year by congressional conservatives. Record fuel prices should lead them to choose families’ wallets over oil companies’ profits in 2008.”

    Okay, first off, I agree that it is time for the Senate to end unreasonable tax breaks on the oil industry and use those funds for renewable energy programs. But, where is this “choosing families’ wallets over oil companies’ profits”? Great politics, perhaps …

    But, more importantly, what is the “lifeline”? Does it make sense for a “Director of Climate Strategy” to be praising measures that will lower fossil fuel prices when every single path toward meaningful reductions in Greenhouse Gas emissions will lead to increased costs for polluting energy sources? (NOTE: Total energy costs might fall due to energy efficiency leading toward lower total usage, even if/when unit cost of energy would rise.)

    The wording and discussion of this bill is not leadership, it is pandering.

    And, in that opinion, I am not alone. As I finished this up, David Roberts posted a good piece at Grist: Counter-pander:

    Obama showed last week how you can offer a serious alternative to political gimmicks and be rewarded for it. It appears his Senate colleagues didn’t learn the lesson. The bill they threw together is a lame piece of pandering, just as silly in its own way as the McCain/Clinton gas tax holiday.

    the main problem is not in the details, it’s in the three underlying premises:

  • High gas prices are attributable to short-term market quirks and oil industry perfidy
  • ;

  • it is possible for Congress to meaningfully lower the prices of gas; and
  • low gas prices are a proper target for public policy.
  • Each of these premises is false. …

    Look: you can’t promise Americans you’re going to lower the price of gas. It’s a lie, and they’re going to notice when prices don’t go down. It might help you tactically in the short-term, but in the long-term it’s going to come back and bite you on the ass. Gas prices are going to keep going up, and good leadership begins with honesty.

    Roberts concludes:

    For decades, energy policy in this country has been predicated on the lie that cheap energy is an American birthright. It’s not. The era of cheap energy is ending. Perhaps a politician or two might try finding out what happens when you treat voters like adults and tell them the truth. It’s so crazy it just might work.

    Now, I think that Barack Obama might have gotten a taste of this in his rejection of the gas tax holiday. It looks like he might have like that taste. Let’s hope that he comes back for more.

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