When folks in Washington want to find out what's on the mind of the American people, they tune in to CNN or Fox News and listen to the best of the Washington talking heads. Not me. I have breakfast at my favorite diner in Eufaula, my hometown in Oklahoma.
Last week, the folks at J.M.s Restaurant weren't talking about Sens. Obama and McCain, or the fact the Iraqi government has al-Qaida on the run. They were talking about energy prices. They were talking about the fact it costs $80 to fill up their cars and $120 to fill up their pickup trucks. They were talking about the fact we import more than 65 percent of all the oil we use annually and that we are now sending more than $840 million a day to OPEC.
Why are gasoline and diesel prices so ridiculously high? It's pretty simple. When oil prices go up, so do gas and diesel prices.
Why are crude oil prices so high? Pretty simple. Only 8 percent of the oil and gas reserves we have onshore are currently available for conventional leasing in the United States and more than 85 percent of the areas containing potential oil and gas reserves in the Outer Continental Shelf are off limits to exploration and production. Our government energy policy has increased our dependence on imports. In fact, our imports from the Middle East have doubled in the past 20 years. Not to mention the Chinese and Indian economies are growing faster than ours and they need energy to fuel their growth.
Not surprisingly, people in Eufaula want to know what the government is doing to help. Unfortunately, not much.
Despite the fact energy prices are directly pegged to the price of crude oil, members of Congress have spent the past 18 months frantically trying to drive the price of oil up. They attempted to let trial lawyers sue OPEC. They attempted to institute a windfall profits tax on oil companies. They have prohibited development of domestic unconventional fuels -- such as oil shale, heavy oil, coal-to-liquids and exploring on federal lands for natural gas. They have tried to raise taxes by trying to implement a climate change regime that would act as a carbon tax on gasoline, diesel, coal and natural gas (which our economy runs on).
They have also tried to unconstitutionally seize offshore leases held by oil and gas producers. And they have blocked efforts to open up ANWR or the Outer Continental Shelf to any exploration whatsoever!
How have our congressional leaders explained the fact that every vote they have taken is a vote to raise energy prices even further than they are today? They haven't. Instead, they have blamed President Bush, "big oil," speculators and OPEC for the recent spike in gasoline and diesel prices. They have claimed we can't drill our way out of this problem, we don't have enough domestic oil or natural gas to make a difference and that it will take too long to bring these resources on line to help reduce energy prices. FYI Congress, we can't tax, sue or regulate our way to lower energy prices either.
The economics of energy prices are again simple. If you want to reduce energy prices, you have to increase supply.
The fact is, we have the resources here in America to solve this problem. Chesapeake Energy estimates we have 82 years of natural gas at current rates of production. Canada's natural gas has an additional 40 years' supply. A RAND Corporation study concludes we have more oil in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah than Saudi Arabia has. We have enough oil in ANWR and the Outer Continental Shelf to significantly reduce -- if not completely eliminate -- our imports from the Persian Gulf. At current costs, we could produce oil in the United States for less than $35 a barrel. Or we could keep buying it from OPEC for more than $135 a barrel.
We also have advanced biofuels technologies such as renewable diesel that doesn't compete with food sources and doesn't have to be blended with conventional diesel and we have clean burning natural gas cars, trucks and buses that can take pressure off of the super-heated diesel markets today.
We can bring these resources online faster than any of the alternative technologies congressional leaders talk about. Even the ardent supporters of cellulosic ethanol, hydrogen technologies and plug-in electric cars will admit their solutions to our addiction to hydrocarbon fuels are decades away.
A strong signal by the government that we are going to get serious about domestic energy production will not only restore equilibrium to the supply-demand equation for oil, it would help rein in market speculation and drop prices of energy immediately.
Let's hope Washington listens to the folks at J. M.'s.
J.C. Watts, chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group, is former chairman of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, where he served as an Oklahoma representative from 1995 to 2002. His e-mail address is JCWatts01@jcwatts.com.
Erin Neff is on vacation. Her column will return next week.