Bush’s bogus boogeyman

The president blames "boutique fuels" for high gas prices. Who does he think he's kidding?

Topics: Energy, Globalization, How the World Works, Peak Oil,

Hop in a time machine, and turn the clock back two years. Grab some passersby, walking down the street. Shove today’s headlines in their faces.

President Bush calls for an end to tax breaks on big energy companies! Demands increased investment in renewable energy technologies! Threatens to stop “manipulation” of gas prices!

No doubt, the immediate reaction will be a mixture of fear and befuddlement. What madness is this? What weird alternative reality has broken out?

Then hit them with another headline.

Bush also eases environmental regulations, in the name of helping out the consumer.

Watch the relaxation. All is back to normal. The future isn’t so scary different, after all. An energy crisis is gaining momentum, and the Bush administration is back to its old tricks: exploiting a train wreck to achieve its long-sought objective of gutting any regulation that threatens to constrain its financial backers.

The news today that George Bush is halting the accumulation of strategic oil reserves, recommending the elimination of environmental regulations that mandate specific blends of gasoline, and making wild statements of getting rid of boondoggle tax breaks for the likes of ExxonMobil can all be easily explained by one simple equation. High gas prices = political peril.

This Friday, the White House will likely trumpet robust economic growth numbers for the first quarter of 2006, perhaps as high as 5 percent. But beneath the rosy statistics lurks a threatening scenario. The housing boom that has fueled the consumer economy for the past few years is losing steam with every passing day. Seventy-three-dollar-a-barrel oil and $3-a-gallon gasoline augur the long-feared return of a president’s worst economic enemy: inflation. With the president’s popularity in the polls at an all-time low, and midterm elections only six months away, every day that gas prices nick upward is another day of potential political doom.

There’s room here for some serious schadenfreude. The current gang of White House politicians is more closely identified with the energy industry than any presidential administration in American history. But if gas prices continue to spike, it may take the fall for a global energy crunch that is enrichening the energy sector beyond belief.

The great irony is that a very good case can be made for the argument that high gas and oil prices are the best possible thing that could be happening to the United States, and the world. High gas and oil prices encourage investment in renewable energy technologies and discourage consumer spending on gas guzzlers. Gas gouging at the pump is an ideal kick in the ass for motivating Americans to prepare for a world of increasingly scarce fossil fuels and increasingly devastating climate change.

Of course there are some downsides. High gas prices are a regressive tax that punishes working people far more than the rich. High oil prices also make turning to environmentally destructive energy sources such as coal and Canada’s oil sands much more attractive. It is also annoying almost beyond comprehension that a company such as ExxonMobil, which vigorously obfuscates the science of climate change, ridicules the potential of renewable energy, and pooh-poohs the threat of peak oil, is raking in record profits on the back of consumer pain.

It would have been far better to have achieved the gas prices we currently have by levying a hefty tax on every gallon of gasoline sold in the U.S. and then using that money to fund research into renewable energy technologies, instead of the curren absurdity in which the working class suffers and Big Oil wallows in riches. But that’s not the world we live in.

One can only hope that voters listening to Bush’s energy pandering now see it for what it really is: hypocritical desperation. But nothing is more frustrating than hearing Bush conjure up his latest bogus boogeyman — the vexing conundrum of “boutique fuels.” In his speech Tuesday to the Renewable Fuels Association (which, despite its green-sounding name, is basically just a trade group for corn-based ethanol agribusinesses) Bush said, “We also need to confront the larger problem of too many localized fuel blends, which are called ’boutique fuels’ … The number of boutique fuels has expanded rapidly over the years, and America now has an uncoordinated and overly complex set of fuel rules. And when you have an uncoordinated, overly complex set of fuel rules, it tends to cause the price to go up.”

The proliferation of so-called boutique fuels is a problem that can be laid squarely on George Bush’s plate. Yes, it is true, scores of states have mandated specific blends of gasoline to address particular environmental issues or to encourage the consumption of ethanol, or both. California’s commitment to clean air has led to some of the most stringent restrictions on fuel composition in the world.

Yes, it’s uncoordinated and overly complex and may contribute to price rises, but the reason why the states have had to take matters into their own hands is because of a failure of leadership at the highest level. If the Bush administration were serious about promoting ethanol, there would be a national requirement for ethanol to be blended into gasoline. If it were serious about giving Americans cleaner air to breathe, there would be national standards obviating the need for Californians to forge ahead.

But, as has been widely documented,the Bush administration came into office with an agenda to bury environmental regulations, not to praise them. Now, under cover of addressing the political vulnerability of high gas prices, Bush’s strategists see yet another opportunity for business as usual.

The good news is that nothing Bush does is likely to have any immediate effect. Most analysts think high gas prices are here to stay, at least through the summer. That’s going to hurt every working person who depends on a car squarely in the pocket. But it may end up hurting Bush more. There’s no getting around the fact that a presidency that is owned, lock, stock and two smoking barrels, by the energy industry has stood and watched as the biggest corporations in the world have hauled in their biggest profits in history, while you and I are paying the most we’ve ever paid for gas every time we fill up our tank. Bush and his wily con men may think that they can stick some of the blame on California regulators, but this time it’s just not going to wash.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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