As gas prices approach $4 in some places, drivers are getting mad. Come November of next year, if pain at the pump continues to mount, angry drivers will be angry voters.
With peak oil officially here, as the International Energy Agency confirmed last year, no matter what happens in Libya or other oil exporting nations, global supply of crude is sure to remain tight. The smart money is already on (at least) $150 a barrel crude by the next presidential election.
That’s bad news for Obama, just as high gas prices were for Jimmy Carter in 1980.
As Chris Cillizza pointed out last week on washingtonpost.com, “the price of gas is the ultimate pocketbook issue,” and pocketbook issues trump everything else come election day.
Citing Jimmy Carter’s perceived mishandling of the gas shortages in the 1970s as a precedent, Cillizza argues that if gas prices shoot up any higher, car-loving Americans will conclude that President Obama’s economic proposals aren’t working. Then they’ll take it out on him at the ballot box, just as they did with Carter:
Every time a fill up costs fifty bucks, it makes it that much harder for people to believe that the broader economy is turning around. And if people don’t believe the trend line on the economy is getting better, President Obama will be in major trouble next year.
Lies, damned lies, and statistics
And you can bet that the oily Republican party will pimp high gas prices to the hilt.
Not that there’s anyone in the field of potential GOP contenders with the oil bona fides of ex-con — er, ex-president — Bush & Company. Still, since Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Gas rule the American plutocracy, they’re guaranteed to step in with arguments on oil prices that appeal more to the heart than the head, promising to solve a problem that they’ll claim the Democrats and Obama simply can’t. Or won’t.
Start with drill, baby, drill. Then look for a big push to blame environmental regulations for preventing that drilling. If only we could open up ANWR, drill offshore, drill in national parks, drill under Harry Reid’s house. Then America would have plenty of oil and gas would go back down to $1.99.
And don’t forget about wars. If there’s a way to force Obama to put boots on the ground in Tehran by Christmas, the GOP will find it. Otherwise, President Palin or Gingrich or Romney will surely find a pretext to liberate the Iranian people in the first 100 days.
Never mind that, with peak oil here, any such schemes to pump, drill or mine more black gooey stuff either here or in our next foreign conquest will do little or nothing to cut gas prices. But what politician can resist demagoguery when the opportunity is so ripe?
Facing the end of growth
We can fudge and dream and spin and dance all we want, from lowly pundits like me straight on up to top oil execs. But anyone with even a modicum of insight on energy knows that on oil, the party’s over.
This means that the real issue is not who’s going to make it all better through an eleventh hour fossil-fuel miracle. The real battle will be over who’s going to hold the power, and through that, take us in either a much dirtier energy direction, or a much cleaner one.
Either way, as Richard Heinberg notes, we’re at the the end of growth, both in energy, and in the size of our economy. Talk about a hard pill to swallow.
But with his back against the political wall, President Obama has few options to deal with high gas prices and have any hope of re-election.
If he tries to co-opt the Big Oil line, he’ll alienate a growing number of voters who are smart enough to understand that sending in General Petraeus to get our oil out from under their sand doesn’t make any sense. The really informed ones also know that more war is a net-energy losing proposition anyway, to say nothing of pissing our money down a hole.
In spite of the difficulties President Obama faces in navigating this minefield, he does have one trump card that can turn his prospects around. He just doesn’t know it yet.
Nice words so far, but not enough
Like other presidents, Obama has reminded the American people that oil is a finite resource, that it’s running out and can’t be replaced. He’s talked about how conservation and a shift to a broad portfolio of renewables and mass transit can, at the very least, shift the direction while also creating jobs. In essence, he’s hinted at America 2.0, the lower-energy version.
What he hasn’t done is come out boldly and say the words “peak oil,” explaining to the American people that this is the end of the era of cheap energy for good.
He hasn’t explained that this means that the kind of growth we’ve enjoyed thus far — either from real resource and business development to the ghost companies and sham trades of Wall Street derivatives bubbles — have no future.
He’s hasn’t said with any seriousness or urgency that our whole way of life is going to change. It’s almost like the guy doesn’t care about his own kids. Or mine. Or yours. Or the long arc of American success. Or anything beyond business as usual for his crony plutocrats who are running the show.
Call me hopeful, or pitifully naive, but there’s a part of me that believes he wants to break out. That he wants to be cut from a mold more akin to the trust busting of a Theodore Roosevelt, and the courageously unapologetic truth telling of a Franklin Roosevelt. FDR knew how to give it straight to Americans, bad news and all:
Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
So, this is Obama’s trump card: level with the American people about peak oil.
The stubborn facts
At current rates of world oil consumption, by election day 2012, the world will have irretrievably burnt away another fifty-four billion, one hundred and twenty million barrels of oil. WikiLeaks has shown that Saudi reserves are in doubt, which means world oil reserves are in doubt. The Mideast is in flux on leadership and oil. Not to mention that, as time goes on and they buy more cars and build more indoor ski slopes, oil producing countries will want to use more and more of their own stuff too, leaving less and less for export to us.
And our own reserves are paltry in comparison to US consumption. Those escalating gas prices aren’t going down again. Not really. Not for good. There will be price volatility. But such volatility will only mean that the middle class will take another hit to our already bludgeoned pocketbooks.
The only apparent solutions to this from the GOP side are more oil subsidies and plowing into toxic, dangerous options like tar sands, deepwater, and oil shale. Sadly, none of these have a promising return on energy invested. Even at $150 a barrel, much unconventional oil is barely worth the trouble. And none has any hope of being a driver of economy in the ways we are used to.
Peak oil means America needs an out. A new direction. A game changer.
And when the stakes are this high, honesty is often the best policy even in politics. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it will gratify some people and astonish the rest.
What else does Obama have? Another stimulus package? Dickering with the Republicans to save healthcare reform? Kissing up to the Chamber of Commerce?
Admitting peak oil may sound like political suicide. But it may also be the only way for Obama to save his presidency. And leveling with the American people could very well give him the moral upper hand in 2012, akin to FDR’s unflinching leadership in the midst of the Great Depression.
The people might be a little taken aback to learn that the party really is over, and that their children’s futures may be far less full of diverse opportunity than their own have been. Or, maybe people won’t be that surprised. Really, how hard is it to understand that oil is running out?
Once they get it, those parents will want to make America the best it can be going forward, if for no other reason than for the sake of their kids. They’ll want to hear solutions and they’ll want be part of crafting solutions. They’ll be open to the ways that localities can grow stronger, an area where there’s plenty of room for economic growth and real jobs. And many of them will love that re-localizing our economy also means a smaller federal government, giving it crossover appeal to conservatives.
But the competition from the GOP will be fierce and unyielding. We’ve already seen demagoguery come out of the shadows on energy and global unrest. This stands to only get worse, with intellectual and emotional jujitsu like you ain’t seen yet. No matter how big a lie “drill here, drill now, pay less is,” it makes for good copy.
If President Obama begins the conversation on peak oil, he will own it. Then all the cases he needs to make for infrastructure, job creation, conservation and energy alternatives will be plain, simple, urgent, hopeful, engaging and doable.
Our other choice is certain collapse, only with a Republican at the helm after 2012 giving us more war and dirty energy while the people go jobless, our resources are left in a shambles and the top 1% pickpocket even more from our wallets.
When you’ve got a trump card, you’d better use it. Or you’re gonna get played.
–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice Magazine
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