Gas prices are up, and President Clinton, rising as always to soothe an anxious and troubled nation, has ordered urgent Energy and Justice Department investigations to find out why.
Why? How about - a wild guess - because supply is down and demand is up?Now, I know that I am not an expert and, unlike the two task forces, I have neither economists nor lawyers nor the FBI working for me. But I have enough confidence in the basic laws of economics that I'm willing to bet Energy Secretary O'Leary and Attorney General Reno $100 each that their million-dollar probes will do nothing more than confirm my hunch.
The short-run factors for the current spike are, by now, well-known. This was a particularly long winter. It depleted stocks of heating oil and made the oil companies turn to refining gasoline later than they had expected. And because they had previously adopted low-inventory delivery systems to cut operating costs, shortages have been doubly acute.
Add to that an explosion in one very large California refinery (and technical problems in several others) that sharply curtailed production. Add the breakdown of talks with Iraq that would have brought more than half a million barrels a day to market and you've got a sudden, if temporary, oil shortage.
So much for the short run. The long-run causes are even more obvious. This is a country of a million Walter Mittys driving 75 mph in their gas-guzzling Bushwack-Safari sport-utility roadsters with moose head on the hood, a country whose crude oil production has dropped 32 percent in the last 25 years but will not drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for fear of disturbing the mating habits of caribou - and we're shocked, shocked to find gasoline prices rising.
1. Speed. Nixon instituted the 55 mph speed limit to save gas. The limit was repealed last year. People are flying down the interstates at ridiculous speeds. Want to drive faster? Fine. But it costs.
2. Distance. The average registered American car traveled 11,839 miles in 1994. That is about 2,000 miles more per car than just 20 years ago. Love driving? So do I. But it costs.
3. Fuel inefficiency. Sport utility vehicles are the rage. Problem is they guzzle gas. Fuel efficiency in the United States rose steadily from about 13 miles per gallon in 1973 to 21 mpg in 1990. Since 1990, however, it has been stuck at 21 mpg. You would expect with older cars being phased out and new ones being phased in, fuel efficiency should continue to rise. It does not, in large part because Americans love commuting in vehicles designed for hunting elephants. Go figure. Hey, it's a constitutional right to have our follies. But it costs.
4. Supply. U.S. crude oil production is in serious decline. In 1970 it was 9.6 million barrels a day. Today it is 6.5 million. The North Slope of Alaska holds potentially the largest oil field in North America, bigger even than Prudhoe Bay next door, which produces 600,000 barrels a day. Unshakable opposition from Democrats has for 15 years prevented even test drilling there. Don't want to disturb a pristine environment, even in a place not one in a million Americans will ever see? Fine. Nothing wrong with that. But it costs.
The biggest crybabies of all are those ever so ecosensitive Californians. They are particularly agitated that their premium gas prices have now topped $2 a gallon, an outrage about which official spokesman Jay Leno has been particularly loquacious.
Now, it happens that between 5 and 15 cents of that $2 comes directly from a decision Californians made in 1991. At that time, the state Air Resources Board ordered the oil companies to change to a less-polluting reformulated gasoline starting March 1, 1996. Nothing wrong with wanting cleaner air. In fact, it is probably worth every penny. But spare us the howl when it comes time to pay the pennies.
Bob Dole has lately been booting about a focus group survey that shows Americans would prefer leaving their children with him than with Clinton. Dole seems to think he is running for national baby sitter. Given the behavior of the electorate during this gas "crisis," he may be right.
A nation stuffs itself with chocolate, then wakes up in the morning whining that it has a tummy ache. Dole immediately calls for repeal of the chocolate tax. Clinton, ever feeling our pain, orders a criminal investigation of the candy man and opens the strategic chocolate reserve.
Pandering? Hardly. In a nation of crybabies, this is leadership.