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Running on Empty

Democratic energy policies ignore reality.

12:00 AM, Jun 23, 2008 • By FRED BARNES
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BARACK OBAMA PUNCTUATED his opposition last week to offshore drilling for oil and natural gas with a clever jab at John McCain. "The politics may have changed, but the facts have not," he quipped. A few days earlier, McCain had called for lifting the moratorium on exploration and drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Obama was only half right. With gasoline at $4-plus a gallon, the politics have indeed changed--in favor of increased domestic oil production. But so have the facts. And it's that change that has made offshore drilling cost-effective, environmentally safe, and no threat to become an eyesore off the beaches of California and Florida.

Advances in oil technology--which Obama either doesn't know about or chooses to ignore--allow drilling to go far deeper beneath the sea and thus farther from the coast. Some oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico are nearly 200 miles from land. Serious spills from drilling offshore have become practically non-existent. More than 100 rigs in the Gulf were damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita without a single spill.

So Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, was wrong. Now, like other Democrats, he's in a politically awkward position. He opposes new drilling for oil and natural gas at a time when drilling in areas currently off limits has become popular. Three-fourths of likely voters in a new Zogby poll said they favor it, and Republicans have made it their top issue against Democrats.

Democrats appear wary of saying they oppose any boost in domestic oil production, which happens to be the position of a powerful interest group, the environmental lobby. But despite soaring gasoline prices, Democrats are against opening new areas of federal land or offshore for exploitation of oil and natural gas reserves.

Instead, they've come up with lame, dubious, or intellectually dishonest reasons for their opposition. Obama's insistence that the "facts" of oil production haven't changed is just one of those.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week that the Democratic Congress is "moving America in a new direction for energy independence." But preserving the ban on offshore drilling isn't new. The ban has been in effect since 1981, but Pelosi said it's not responsible for high gasoline prices. Who's really to blame? The Bush administration and the oil companies, she said.

Pelosi's most implausible claim is that energy companies are hoarding oil. If so, they're doing this as gasoline prices have reached a record high price. And these companies are the same ones that Democrats accuse of being greedy and reaping "obscene profits."

Hoarding oil--keeping it off the market--certainly makes no economic sense, which is why oil companies aren't doing it. As supposed evidence, Democrats cite the absence of drilling in 68 million acres of federal oil reserves leased by oil companies. In truth, these areas are under active exploration that may lead to drilling. Drilling, of course, is the last step in oil production. Whatever Democrats may think, oil companies don't drill first, then explore later to find if drilling is actually worthwhile.

Oil companies pay billions to the federal government each year for oil leases, most of which expire after 10 years. They pay an annual fee as well. In 2007, they paid $7 billion for oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico alone. Would they spend so much for leases and fail to follow up and look for oil? Not likely.

Pelosi also made this boast: "The New Direction Congress has enacted into law the first new fuel efficiency standards for vehicles in 32 years." The law would boost vehicle fuel standards to 35 miles a gallon--in 2020.

But this legislation was entirely unnecessary. The free market is already increasing fuel efficiency. Car buyers are rushing to trade in gas guzzlers for vehicles with better mileage. And auto companies are closing plants that manufacture low mileage cars as fast as they can as they switch to building more efficient cars.

Democrats have also turned to several hardy perennials, claiming that gouging and "excessive speculation" are chiefly at fault for the rise in the price of gasoline. These charges were aired during the 1970s and found to be false. But there's a new twist this time: the House authorized lawsuits against OPEC, the oil cartel, for price fixing. This tactic is unlikely to be pursued.

The silliest of the ploys came from Rahm Emanuel, the savvy congressman from Chicago. He demanded to know if McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, favors drilling in the Great Lakes. "I just want to help," Emanuel told the Washington Post, "in case geography wasn't where he got an 'A.'" Sure.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.