Drivers, start your engines -- and empty your wallets! As we gear up for the biggest driving weekend of the year, vacationers all across America are coming face to face with the highest average gas prices in history -- up 42 cents a gallon since 2001 -- and a bad case of "pump panic," a new malady in which your heart rate instantly matches the price of full-service high-test. Where I live, there are lots of folks palpitating at 325 beats a minute.
At the same time car owners are having to consider taking out a second mortgage in order to fill up their tanks, oil companies are raking in record profits. ConocoPhillips, for example, the United States' largest oil refiner, recently reported its largest first quarter profits ever. And Exxon Mobil just posted its highest first quarter refining earnings in 13 years.
Coincidentally, these companies and their oil and gas industry brethren have a highly profitable habit of greasing the receptive palms of their friend George Bush -- doling out over $3.5 million to his 2000 and 2004 presidential runs.
So for American consumers, payback is a bitch. And over two bucks a gallon at the gas pump.
Indeed, since taking office, the Bush administration has turned the White House into a veritable full-service fueling station for Big Oil. And we're the ones being forced to pick up the tab.
How has Bush responded to Big Oil's call to "fill 'er up"? Let me count the ways:
1.5: the meager miles per gallon Bush has proposed increasing fuel efficiency standards for light trucks and SUVs, which are allowed to average 7 miles per gallon less than regular cars.
33: the number of oil refinery mergers the Bush administration has allowed, while refusing to block a single oily takeover. Who needs all that messy free market competition, anyway?
41: the number of top-level Bush administration officials with ties to the oil industry, including Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Evans, Gale Norton and Condoleezza Rice the only national security adviser in history to have an oil tanker named after her.
100,000: the amount, in dollars, that buyers of extra large -- and extra gas-guzzling -- SUVs are able to write off in taxes thanks to a scandalous loophole the president signed into law.
23 billion: the number of dollars in tax incentives, tax credits and tax deductions earmarked for the president's energy industry chums in the Bush-backed energy bill passed by the House and awaiting a vote in the Senate.
Infinite (or does it only seem so?): the number of times the president has resurrected the idea that drilling in Alaska's pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would make us less dependent on foreign oil -- even though such drilling would, at best, produce enough oil to meet only six months of America's energy needs. And it would take 10 years to do even that.
Add to all this the administration's downright contemptuous and contemptible attitude toward conservation -- the only surefire way to reduce the need for more oil -- and it becomes unmistakably clear that when it comes to Bush's energy policy, special-interest money has once again trumped the public interest.
It should be the first lesson in Political Chemistry 101: Oil money and good government don't mix. Not in Saudi Arabia, and not in the United States.
Of course, our nation's untreated addiction to oil is costing us more than just at the gas pump -- it's putting our very security at risk by leaving us beholden to the whims of any number of oil-rich and terrorist-friendly nations.
This continued dependence on foreign oil is why Prince Bandar was more in the loop about plans to invade Iraq than our own secretary of state, why the administration's much touted passion for human rights doesn't extend to oil-rich -- and brutal -- Kazakhstan, why we're spending close to $100 million in taxpayer money to arm and train troops to defend an Occidental Petroleum pipeline in Colombia, and, at least partly, why young Americans continue to arrive home from Iraq (secretly, of course) in body bags.
It's time for Washington to dole out some tough love to the energy and auto industry lobbies and help set them on the path of reform, starting with increasing fuel efficiency standards for all cars, light trucks and SUVs -- the single biggest step we can take to conserve energy. Raising standards from the current 27.5 miles per gallon to 36 mpg would save us roughly 2 million barrels a day -- about the same amount we currently import from the Persian Gulf.
Washington must also push Detroit to radically increase its production of hybrid cars and SUVs, and lead the way in teaming with corporate America to rapidly accelerate investment in energy efficiency, hydrogen-based technology, and renewable sources of energy like solar and wind. A great model for this is the new Apollo Project, a $300 billion program proposed by unions and environmental groups to create 3 million new jobs while helping America achieve energy independence over the next 10 years.
And, oh yeah, there's one more number:
2: the date in November when we must make sure to vote Bush out of office and replace him with someone whose judgment hasn't been polluted by all that oil money spilling into his campaign coffers and then leaking into our energy policy.
Don't let the skyrocketing numbers at the gas pump fool you: America isn't confronting a shortage of fuel; it's confronting a shortage of leadership.