Thursday, October 07, 2004

Rose Colored Pachyderms

It's hard to say why stories about rising oil prices and decreased production are garnering such little notice (outside of the financial markets media). There are some undertones and rumblings of another round of energy price shocks, but from an election perspective, neither John Kerry nor George Bush are really talking about the pink energy elephant sitting in the middle of the room.

There's not much question about why Bush won't address the issue. He owns it.

Bush and Cheney's ties to the oil industry are the stuff of political legend, and the surface has only really been scratched on how much the energy industry has impacted every decision the Bush administration has made, from day one back in 2001.

First, we had the Enron-instigated California energy coup that BushCo refused to step into. Then we had Cheney's shadowy Energy Task Force, a compendium of energy industry leaders and American Enterprise Institute-schooled policy wonks who sat down to figure out the best way to pump up Cheney's holdings in Halliburton (and Ken Lay's in Enron). Next came the Iraq war - which, more and more looks as if (like we didn't know it already) it was a play for Middle East oil supplies. Bottom line: starting a $200+ billion war was ultimately cheaper and easier than trying to sell drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

John Kerry really doesn't get off the hook on energy issues, either. While the Kerry / Edwards platform recognizes the need for energy independence and promoting alternatives to fossil fuels, it's very short on substance other than the usual nod toward more efficient vehicles and immature technologies. The most important component of any large scale alternative energy development, tax credits for consumers who will take a chance on alternative technologies, is conspicuous by its absence.

There's so much to discuss on this topic, but no one in either campaign is making a serious attempt to get to the meat of the matter: America (and in reality, the world) has a big, pink elephant sitting in the middle of the room. But we don't want to seriously discuss the elephant. The elephant is a distraction from important matters like kerned fonts. Politicians of both parties conduct their housekeeping around the elephant -- shoveling up the elephant dung and hoping that the voters won't notice the residual stench (and therefore the elephant) as they walk into the voting booth.

Bloomberg has a nice article this morning on rising oil prices (now at almost $53 / bbl). The article predicts a wholesale price point of $60/bbl in the very near future. Crude stocks are low. Refined stocks are low. Home heating oil inventories are 11% below where they should be, and that's why diesel fuel prices have been rising like a rocket in the past few weeks (diesel and No. 2 fuel oil are very similar in composition, and the refining process seasonally favors one or the other, but not both).

So, businesses are expecting to see transportation costs rise exorbitantly in the next few months. And you know who absorbs transportation costs for everything from oranges to condoms. You, the consumer.

It's looking more and more like we're in for a hard crash this winter on the energy front, and it doesn't matter who's in office. But rather than being reactive (at least to price spikes), the government needs to be proactive -- I'm not smart enough to know if price controls are the way to go, or if government subsidy programs like LIHEAP need to be immediately expanded. But something needs to be done right now and not left to the vagaries of politics in January and February.

There’s no question that the energy topic is very complex, and that there are a lot of variables. But let's boil it down to a couple of simple concepts that the Kerry campaign can use effectively (and you can use with family, friends, and neocon coworkers!):

  1. Earlier this year, when oil prices were in the $30 - $35 range, gasoline was averaging $2.25 to $2.50 / gallon.

  2. Crude oil prices have nearly doubled since then, but the price of gas has dropped. The price of refined products to the consumer have been artificially held down (for whatever reason) over the past few months. Blame it on Bandar Bush or whoever you want.

  3. After the election in November, it's a stone cold certainty that gasoline, diesel, and heating oil prices will skyrocket. It's going to be so bad, that gas stations won't even bother posting prices - because they'd spend half the day changing the signs.

  4. A lot of Americans are going to be freezing in the dark this winter because of inaction by the Bush administration.
The Kerry campaign can make some serious hay with this issue, but only if they quit ignoring the rose colored pachyderm in the middle of the room.