Tapping the Reserve

If you’ve been to the gas station recently… well, I’d better give you a moment to sit down and recover from the shock.  Take a few deep breaths.  Go to your happy place.

As I was saying, if you’ve been to the gas station recently, you’ve noticed prices at the pump are skyrocketing.  AAA reports the current national average price for regular unleaded is up to $3.51.  That’s an increase of about forty cents per gallon in the past month.

Much of this rapid price increase is due to the unrest in Libya, which has essentially shut down oil production, reducing the global supply of oil by a good two percent.  However, gas prices were already rising steadily.  We were headed for four-dollar gas anyway.  Libya is just getting us there faster.

The media has been very deliberately ignoring gas price increases under President Barack Obama.  As I noted back in January, gas made a forty-cent price jump in 2010.  Under a Republican president, the headlines of every major newspaper would have been screaming about it, and network news shows would have set up permanent cameras at gas pumps to ask consumers how angry they were.  Obama, on the other hand, has gotten a total pass… until now.  Forty cents in one month is too much for even the most biased press to ignore.

You know what else you never hear about in the media anymore?  Soccer moms.  They were everywhere in the Bush years.  Their perspective was mentioned in virtually every news story.  They figured prominently in anguished reports from gas pumps, when fuel prices spiked.  Glossy magazines ran cover stories about their concerns.  After Obama took office, the term disappeared from news reports, virtually overnight.  Why is that?

The soccer mom tumbled down the Memory Hole because she was developed as a way to find fault with a productive economy that featured relatively low unemployment.  The big economic picture was looking pretty good, so the media created the soccer mom magnifying glass to peer at the small irritations of daily life.  Surging gas prices were more than just a minor irritation.  They hit that magnifying glass like desert sunlight at high noon.

Now that the economic damage from rising fuel prices can be seen without the aid of a magnifying glass, even from President Obama’s throne atop Mount Olympus, the press has finally gotten around to asking the Administration what it plans to do.  The quick and easy answer is tapping America’s strategic petroleum reserve, to flood the market with fuel and push retail gasoline prices down.  The President’s chief of staff, William Daley, says the idea is “on the table,” but cautioned that the reserve is only tapped on “very rare occasions.”

In fact, the reserve has only been tapped twice before: during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  A handy fact sheet about the reserve, published by the Omaha World-Herald, points out that the reserve is only supposed to be used when there is a “severe energy supply interruption,” including an oil price spike that has “a major adverse effect on the national economy.” 

The Obama economy is so weak that a $0.40 spike in gas prices could qualify as a “major adverse effect” under reasonable standards.  Just wait until the industries most directly dependent on gasoline, including transportation and delivery services, begin laying off waves of employees.

The problem with addressing this situation by tapping our strategic reserve is that it’s a temporary fix for a long-term problem.  Even if Moammar Qaddafi is eaten by jackals tomorrow morning, and the free people of Libya immediately double oil production in celebration, the forces pushing us toward four-dollar gas will remain in place.  As things stand, the Libyan crisis is unlikely to be resolved by divine intervention any time soon.

Pushing gas prices down for a few months is unlikely to give the President useful political cover.  If there were major elections scheduled soon, I suspect he would do it in a heartbeat, but as it stands he would just be placing Uncle Sam’s thumb on the scale until summertime… when gas prices usually go up anyway, due to increased demand. 

It’s not as if releasing fuel from the strategic reserve would give us enough time to reverse the damage Barack Obama has already done to the domestic oil industry, and he has no desire to reverse that damage anyway.  An emergency spending bill to pump more cash to his contributors in the “alternative energy” sector is more likely than actions that would actually increase our domestic supply of gasoline, and allow fuel prices to fall, instead of pushing them down. 

The soccer moms will have to lean on their SUVs with arms folded and brows furrowed, watching the digital display on the gas pump rocket up like the scoreboard on a pinball machine, while news vans fill up with corporate cards and race off to cover stories they would rather talk about.