Congress is on empty for energy bills

Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California holds a picture of a gas station in San Francisco showing high gasoline prices during a news conference on Capitol Hill in May 2008.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: There were a couple of bright spots on the macroeconomic horizon today. Orders for durable goods rose almost a percent in June. And, despite high food and energy prices, one measure of consumer sentiment bounced back from all-time lows last month. Those energy prices continued their slide today. Oil slipped below $124 a barrel for the first time in almost two months. Crude was down $2.23 today.

That didn't make a lick of difference on Capitol Hill though, where another day in Congress brought another energy stalemate. Democrats in the Senate tried again -- and failed again -- with their plan to cut back on speculation in the oil markets. That procedural logjam also brought down a Republican attempt to expand offshore oil production. Which means with a week to go before the summer recess and then the fall election campaign, the number of energy bills Congress has passed comes to exactly zero.

So if $4 gas and oil at a hundred and a quarter isn't enough of a crisis to get them going, what is? From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.


SAM EATON: An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out today shows that the cost of energy is now the number one economic concern for voters. So why is Congress debating legislation most experts call nothing more than symbolic? Easy, says Phil Sharp with the energy think tank Resources for the Future.

Phil Sharp: They can say, "I did something, I was for something" even though it doesn't even become law.

And Sharp should know. He spent two decades in Congress as an Indiana representative. But he says before you judge how Congress is or isn't responding to the energy crisis, you have to ask another question: How do you define it?

SHARP: For some, the crisis is that we've got to get moving into a low-carbon future in order to avoid dramatic climate change. The second is, Well, it's just a matter of I'm paying more at the gasoline pump and this comes at a very ugly and inconvenient time for a lot of people.

Sharp says if getting people off of fossil fuels and onto renewable energy sources is the priority, then high gas prices are actually a good thing. But saying that would be political suicide. So, Congress continues to treat the cost of gas the same way it treats the housing crunch -- as something it can fix.

Energy expert, Daniel Yergin says that's misleading.

Daniel Yergin: You can't do the same kind of thing you can do on housing in energy, because you're talking about a global system of which we're a part and in which the lead times are quite long.

Yergin says boosting supplies might help in the long-term. But he says the fastest way to ease gas prices today is to address the demand side. And that's already happening, just not in the halls of Congress.

Yergin says as U.S. consumers adapt to higher prices, national demand for gasoline has already dropped about 3 percent this year.

I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...