September's Lowdown

September 2008, Volume 10, Number 9

Edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer


Big Oil already leases huge tracts of federal land; giving it more won't help

Why the McCain drill-more-oil campaign is pure flim flam


Here they come--America's Drill Team! Out front are the two high-strutting leaders, John McCain and George W, thrusting their drum-major batons and chanting "Drill! Drill! Drill!" Right behind them are the famous Marching Lobbyists of Big Oil, and--look!--prancing alongside are House minority leader John Boehner and the Merry Pranksters of the Republican caucus, doing a precision routine of call and response:

"Alaska's wildlife refuge!" shouts Boehner. "Drill it!" barks the caucus.

"America's seacoasts!" hollers Boehner. "Drill 'em!" booms the caucus.

"The White House lawn!" shrieks Boehner. "That, too!" cries the caucus.

And the lobbyists break out in a synchronized grin.

The ones getting drilled by all this are the American people and truth. Just as the Bushites diverted our country into Iraq by spooking and duping the public with a cloud of fear and rush of lies, they are now trying to divert us from a strong, forward-looking energy policy into one that's stupid and backward-looking.

Using the same tactics of bamboozlement and outright prevarication, the team wants financially strapped Americans to believe that the answer to $4 gasoline is simple--just let those enterprising executives of Big Oil sink their shafts into our public parks and protected coastal waters. If only we do this, oil will flow, supply will rise, and--voila!--prices will plummet!

The problem, snarls the team, is that there are enemies from within who secretly want to harm America. Who are these demons? Why, it's those environmental weenies who care more about fish and caribou than people, and those Democratic meanies who have tied the hands of Exxon Mobil et al., refusing to unleash these beneficent giants to work their wonders.

These guys give stupidity a bad name, but their frantic demand for drilling in America's natural treasures has become the GOP's official energy policy (and the core of its 2008 election strategy). "The need for congressional action is urgent," wailed Bush in July, setting up the attack. Boehner staged a rump session of the House during the August recess, declaring that he and his Republican colleagues would stay on the floor every day until speaker Nancy Pelosi brought the Democrats back from vacation to pass offshore-drilling legislation. "Every day," he emphasized (though it turns out that Boehner himself would not personally be there, having departed for an extended golfing vacation in Ohio).

Then came McCain, who used to scorn those who thought America could drill its way out of its oily energy mess. But now he, too, is spewing super-premium stupidity. "We're not going to pay $4 a gallon for gas, because we're going to drill offshore, and we're going to drill now," he bellowed at an August biker rally in South Dakota. Then he added, "We're going to drill here." This puzzled the bikers and other onlookers since South Dakota has no oil--but apparently no place is to be safe from rigs.

Checking the dipsticks

I'd like to think that such nonsense would sink of its own weight. But, as we've learned from being rushed into Iraq and into the Orwellian madness of the Patriot Act, when stupidity is expressed with enough force and frequency, it has a way of becoming national policy. And, once again, we're seeing too many Democrats in Congress buckling at the knees from the intensity of the GOP's cockamamie push. Even Pelosi, a once-adamant opponent of the scheme, has wobbled, now saying she would not absolutely exclude some drilling if it was the price of getting "some great things, in terms of renewable energy sources."

Name that VEEP!

In our July issue we asked Lowdowners to come up with names for an Obama administration. Here's what you told us: [read more...]

Sen. Barack Obama, too, is prematurely unfurling the flag of compromise. "If we come up with a genuine bipartisan compromise, where I have to accept some things that I don't like to get energy independence, that's something I will have to consider," he said in August. Obama stresses that he is not ready to sign off on any such compromise, but he shouldn't even be suggesting that he might. Pelosi has to try to manage a disparate bunch of Democrats in the House, so perhaps she is playing an inside game. But Obama is running for president and doesn't need to surrender any point of principle. Instead, he should show firm leadership, rallying us outsiders against corporate-giveaway stupidity while building solid grassroots support for his $15-billion-a-year proposal to build the green economy around clean-energy jobs.

However, since the Drill Team's stupidity is being taken seriously, at least as a political ploy, let's probe it:

First, like the infamous Weapons of Mass Destruction, the claim that there are Deposits of Mass Salvation under America's public lands and waters is bogus. We have only 2.2% of the globe's known reserves, yet we consume 25% of the world's oil, sucking up 7.5 billion barrels a year. If we extracted all of the oil out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska, that would be 10.4 billion barrels--just a year-and-a-half supply. Likewise, place a wall of drilling platforms offshore of every beach on our seacoasts, suck up all the oil that exists there--and we'd have enough for only another two years.

That's it. As reported this year by Bush's own Energy Information Administration (EIA), this amount of crude--even if it began flowing tomorrow--would have an "insignificant" effect on pump prices.

Second, anyone expecting the Bush-McCain team to deliver for them should not sit idling at the pump, because it'll be a long wait. EIA calculates that even if additional offshore drilling were to be authorized by Congress before the election, it could not begin for at least five years (in part because all drilling ships are booked solid for that long), and it would take 20 years after leasing began for production to flow into the market. Likewise, ANWR oil would not begin flowing until 2018.

Third, (and this is a nasty glitch the Drill Team hopes the public does not discover), once the oil giants started pumping oil from America's publicly owned land and water, this liquid gold is not likely to stay in the U.S. market to help hard-hit consumers here. Exxon et al. are global behemoths that sell on the open market to the highest bidder. They are not public-spirited institutions. They are bottom-line profiteers, with no loyalty whatsoever to the good ol' US of A. As a Lowdowner put it to me in an email, "Just ask the oil companies if they plan to offer a Yankee discount on [America's] oil because it's the patriotic thing to do." No, they don't. The big new oil buyers on the world block are China and India, and the Exxons would very likely sell a good part of our oil to them.

Fourth, there's nothing to keep China's oil company from winning the offshore oil leases that Bush-McCain are so eager to put up for bid. A 1997 agreement between the U.S. and China allows Chinese companies to bid on mineral leases on the U.S. continental shelf, so China could be sinking wells off the coasts of Miami or San Francisco, shipping the crude back to its refineries, then offering to sell gasoline back to us--at a price. Yes, Congress could mandate that all oil from U.S. leases be reserved for domestic use. But guess who has opposed such an intrusion into the marketplace? John McCain!

Fifth, if oil giants are just itching to produce more oil and save consumers, let them drill on the 68 million acres of federal property they already hold and are just sitting on. They have leases on almost two thirds of all federal land that is believed to have recoverable oil. As for oil offshore, 80% of what's recoverable is also leased to the oil behemoths, but they are drilling in only a fourth of those fields. Developing what they have would be a much quicker way to increase domestic supply than clamoring for more leases--but, no. In July, House Democrats pushed a "use it or lose it" bill to spur oil companies to develop these leases. Bush promised to veto the legislation, and, led by John "The Drill Sergeant" Boehner, all but 26 Republicans helped to kill it.

McCain opens the spigots

"I am very angry, frankly, at the oil companies, not only because of the obscene profits they've made, but at their failure to invest in alternate energy to help us eliminate our dependence on foreign oil." --Sen. John McCain June 13, 2008 [read more...]

Sixth, the dirtiest little secret in this dirty game is that Big Oil doesn't really want more crude coming to market. Oh, it does want the ANWR and offshore leases, because it wants to lock up and stockpile every last acre of public oil property before Bush-Cheney exit, stage right. But the Big Five (Exxon Mobil, ChevronTexaco, Conoco Phillips, BP, and Shell) are siphoning enormous profits from our pockets by keeping supplies tight.

Exxon Mobil's real profit margin, for example, was 32% last year. Well, yes, say the honchos, but we invest so much in exploration and refining. Not really. While the oil giant spent $4.3 billion on those items in the past year, it spent $40 billion buying back its own stock-a form of corporate masturbation. The Big Five control 55% of the U.S. gasoline market, and the top 10 control 81% of the market. It's in their self-interest to use their monopolistic grip to squeeze the supply line, which means squeezing you and me. When Exxon Mobil says it is eagerly searching for more deposits, it is talking about bank deposits, not oil.

The real gouge

When drug addicts go to a rehab clinic, desperately crying that addiction is ruining their lives, the proper response by the good doctor is not to say, "There, there, don't worry; I'll find you some more dope." Yet, this is the prescription offered by the Drill Team to America's oil addiction. It's an embarrassing failure of leadership, a cruel consumer deception, and the frittering away of a historic opportunity to rally Americans to a new future of energy, environmental, and economic sustainability.

Sure, sure, even the radical oilists have to give lip service to conservation and renewable energy sources these days, but that's as far as they'll go. Four times this summer, for example, the Senate oil bloc (with McCain's support) voted to deny some $18 billion in tax credits for renewable energy entrepreneurs, including new credits to advance the development of plug-in hybrid cars, which could make a timely difference in fuel prices (see Lowdown, May 2005). Also, this June, while demanding that our public lands be thrown open to oil corporations, the irony-challenged Bushites closed these same lands to fledgling businesses that have applied to erect solar projects on them--projects with the potential to power 20 million homes.

So many other real possibilities are being squelched, as in the Bushites' attempts to kill Amtrak (at a time ridership is soaring and people are demanding a world-class rail system) and Washington's bipartisan failure to require that carmakers build fuel-efficient vehicles. The gas-pump gouge is one thing, but America's leadership gouge is the most damaging (and damning). It's made worse by the knowledge that those in charge today are making the same mistake that corporate, political, and media elites made, when we were hit with oil shortages and price spikes 30 years ago. Rather than looking beyond old energy, they kept us shackled to it (you might remember that one of Ronald Reagan's first acts in office was to strip off the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House).

So, here we are again

This time, however, let's not go along with the cynicism and recalcitrance of unimaginative, oil-soaked leaders. The first thing we can do is spread the word about the absurd fraud of the Drill Team.

More importantly, however, you and I can get behind national, state, and local policies that embrace and invest in our country's exciting energy possibilities. Solar and wind power, conservation, green building, cellulosic biofuels, electric and hydrogen vehicles, and other advances are not misty dreams--they're practical technologies available to us in the here and now. Moreover, many local governments, unions, entrepreneurs, inventors, internet rebels, community activists, farmers, environmental groups, and others are already implementing this future, giving us grassroots models that can be lifted to national scale.

Check the "Do Something" box for sources of information and action--then get connected and get moving. The Big Oil dinosaurs might be mired in the tar pits, but we don't have to stay there with them.



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