U.S. needs energy policy change

Sunday, July 22, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:30 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

There’s a bill floating around that would let our government sue members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for driving up the price of oil. Surprise, surprise, it passed Congress. President Bush has vowed to quash the brilliantly named “NOPEC” (the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act), but sticking it in OPEC’s eye has such appeal that the measure may enjoy a veto-proof majority.

This could be an emotionally satisfying way to lash out at $3-a-gallon gasoline, but it’s not energy policy. NOPEC would accomplish nothing except perhaps ignite a trade war. America’s relationship with foreign oil producers is sick. Time to move out of the house, once and for all.

The way to get OPEC out of our lives is to stop buying so much oil, and the way to do that is to force its price up. At a certain pain point, Americans will choose fuel-efficient cars, houses and appliances and will turn to clean-energy sources. High oil prices make these alternatives more competitive.

That’s not to dismiss the legal arguments behind NOPEC. OPEC is indeed a conspiracy. U.S. antitrust laws have been used to break up other international cartels for such products. Why couldn’t we do the same with oil?

OPEC claims, and American courts have ruled, that its members are acting as sovereign governments and therefore not subject to our antitrust laws. NOPEC, however, would empower the Justice Department to sue OPEC members under the Sherman Antitrust Act and seize their U.S. assets to pay for damages.

One thing Americans don’t need right now is a ratcheting up of international tensions. OPEC members could retaliate by removing their investments from the United States. And they could replace oil sales to the United States with increased business in energy-hungry China and India.

But Americans truly don’t need more babying by their politicians over the price of gas. Their devotion to low gas prices is responsible for our current humiliating role as supplicant to countries that pay terrorists to attack us. Rather than wait, we should be doing it ourselves through gas taxes. That way, we could keep the extra revenues while providing the incentives to unhook ourselves from foreign oil.

This is hardly a new idea. The third party presidential candidate H. Ross Perot proposed a 50-cent-a-gallon tax way back in 1992.

The new revenue could be used for health care, cutting the national debt or whatever. The government could throw the money into the Potomac, and the tax would still make sense because it would push Americans to use less gas and develop other energy sources. The higher cost of filling up would create a bigger market for fuel-efficient cars.

In the past, when oil prices approached levels that would encourage a move to alternatives, the Saudis would ramp up production to lower the cost and thus keep us addicted. And so why does Congress now want to do this for them?

OPEC is not our friend so let’s end this bad marriage. Trying to make it behave more to our short-term liking hurts long-term interests. We need a divorce, and only an intelligent energy policy will get it rolling.

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