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Published: Friday, 8/8/2008

Oil and campaign politics

THE change in position by Sen. Barack Obama, the putative Democratic nominee, on tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and allowing offshore drilling is one more episode in a sad political dance around the gas pump.

The precipitous rise in the price of oil over the last year is a key factor in Americans' economic misery. Not only has it caused them to curtail their activities, but it also has been responsible for the rise in food prices and the terror with which some are contemplating their winter heating bills.

The obscene profits earned by the oil companies, epitomized by ExxonMobil's $11.68 billion second-quarter haul (the highest ever for an American company), coupled with government's unwillingness to tax them appropriately, indicates the unholy relationship between the oil companies, Congress, and a White House headed by oilmen President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Given the centrality of the fuel price issue for Americans, both Senator Obama and the likely Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, feel compelled to address the problem.

With his "drill here, drill now" mantra, Mr. McCain mostly parrots the oil-company line, although he continues to oppose drilling in the most pristine portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Mr. Obama was opposed to both, but now may be weaseling a bit in his position on offshore drilling. Last week he said he could support some offshore drilling if it were part of a compromise energy package.

Yet gas prices have been going down slightly and the reason may be the drop in demand. Americans are driving less and taking some of the practical measures that can be used to lower consumption, including eliminating unnecessary trips, taking public transit, and keeping their cars' tires at the proper pressure - a conservation measure arrogantly mocked by the McCain campaign.

Drilling offshore and building derricks among the polar bears will have virtually no effect on the price of oil for years, if at all. Tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve might shave a few cents off the price of gas, but it won't last. What would be significant is a national policy of energy conservation and substitution, producing a drop in demand for oil.

Our politicians should have the guts to say that and mean it, rather than let the oil companies call the shots as they have under oilmen Bush and Cheney.

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