Four-dollar gas has done nothing to change the energy policies of an administration headed by two oil industry executives. The attitude of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for eight years has been "if there's not enough oil, let's drill for more."


Four-dollar gas has done nothing to change the energy policies of an administration headed by two oil industry executives. The attitude of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for eight years has been "if there's not enough oil, let's drill for more."

But there are two sides to every supply/demand equation, and the demand side has too often been missing, not just from White House proposals but from the public debate engendered by skyrocketing fuel prices.

Yet conservation, scorned by Cheney as a "personal virtue" with no application to public policy, shows far more promise for controlling the pressure on oil prices short-term than expensive, supply-side initiatives like opening the continental shelf to oil drilling.

Reality is catching up with the White House rhetoric on energy, which blames American environmentalists for the shortage of oil. First, there are no vast pools of oil waiting to be tapped just off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The U.S., which consumes 25 percent of the world's oil flow, controls between 2 percent and 3 percent of the world's proven oil reserves.

We're not against loosening restrictions on drilling, now that new technology has made offshore drilling cleaner and safer. But no one should pretend even pumping every last drop will have much impact on the global price of oil, let alone make America energy-independent.

Second, what oil is out there will take years to exploit. The Energy Information Administration estimates it will be 2030 before reserves off the coasts could have any impact on prices at the pump. Nor would tapping oil beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have an appreciable impact on the global oil market.

As The New York Times noted Thursday, global demand for offshore rigs and the ships needed to service them is adding new costs and delays to the picture. The specialized ships, mostly built in Asia, cost around a half-billion dollars each — and the price has risen $100 million since last year.

There will be progress on the supply side; as long as oil is selling for $140 a barrel, companies will find a way to pump it. But while increasing the supply will take years, demand for oil can be reduced overnight. New figures show Americans have cut back on their driving every month for the last six months. That's what $4/gallon gas can do.

But think how much more energy could be conserved if political leaders talked as much about saving fuel as drilling for more. Thirty years ago, the national speed limit was cut to 55 mph to save gas, and laws were changed allowing right turns on red lights. New programs were created to encourage energy efficiency in homes. Standards were set to increase the efficiency in cars and appliances.

Some of those laws and programs are still in place. Fuel economy standards were finally raised this year, though it will take years for them to kick in. But where are the new ideas? What can government do to reduce its consumption of gasoline and to encourage others to do the same?

Reducing demand won't bring back $3/gallon gas, any more than new drilling will. But if Americans got serious about conservation, it might at least discourage speculators who are helping push oil prices to record levels. If we start saving now, it may at least slow the arrival of gas costing $5 or $6 a gallon.

GateHouse News Service