John Edwards is confused about gas prices

In Silicon Valley, the candidate presents his plans for addressing pain at the pump. He wants to have his cake, eat it, and use it to fuel his car.

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 1, 2007 12:21AM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards participated in a round table discussion in Menlo Park, Calif., on Thursday. The No. 1 issue of concern for attendees: gas prices. Edwards responded with a four-point plan to ease the short-term pain:

First of all, the Justice Department should conduct an aggressive and thorough investigation into the policies and the operating methods of oil and gas companies, and particularly looking at the vertical integration that's taken place, where the oil companies basically own the entire process from refining all the way to sales at the gas pump. We need to take a hard look at what they're doing and see whether the antitrust laws are, in fact, being violated.

The second thing is, if the spirit of the antitrust laws is being violated but they're not being technically violated, then we need Congress to change the law, because they're intended to prevent this kind of result and the law needs to be changed to recognize the realities of the way oil companies and gas companies are operating today.

The third thing we need is we need states to enforce their clean air laws with respect to these refineries so that they actually aren't doing damage to the environment in the process of making these huge, huge profits.

And then, finally, the last thing America should be doing and American taxpayers should be doing is subsidizing the already exorbitant profits of big oil companies and big gas companies. And we're doing it now with tax breaks and subsidies to the tune of about $3 billion a year. That needs to stop. It needs to stop immediately.

While How the World Works admires the chutzpah of a man who says that if antitrust laws aren't being violated by the oil companies, then change the laws, there are some aspects to this plan that don't make much sense. Like, how exactly would enforcing clean air laws do anything to lower gas prices? Wouldn't it have the opposite effect? Wouldn't clamping down on polluting refineries further crimp production of gasoline? Cheap energy and a healthy environment: two great things that don't go together.

Similarly, the prospect of slashing government subsidies and tax breaks to oil companies has its obvious attractions, but not if the theory is that slapping the oil companies around thusly will somehow bring down the price of a gallon of gas.

Edwards followed his short-term action plan with a long-term to-do list for weaning America off its "addiction to oil." He wants to use the proceeds from auctioning off greenhouse gas emission credits in a cap-and-trade system to fund research and development into renewable energy and carbon sequestration technologies. He also called for vastly increased fuel efficiency standards. This is all fine and excellent. But come on! If the goal is kicking the oil habit, high gasoline prices, one way or another, are going to be part of the package. The production of energy from fossil fuels is the No. 1 cause of greenhouse gas emissions. If you make it more costly to produce such emissions, the price of fossil fuel-derived energy will rise.

Naturally, neither John Edwards nor any other candidate for president is going to utter such blasphemy to the American people. Especially when Americans bear their own share of the blame for the problem. Right now, even as gas prices are hitting record highs, demand for gas is also up -- Americans are currently consuming 9.4 million barrels of gasoline a day, which is 1 percent higher than a year ago.

As consumers, this is the equivalent of opening one's arms up wide to the oil companies and begging, "Gouge me, gouge me please."

Andrew Leonard

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

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works John Edwards