Be skeptical of easy answers

Q: When are rising gasoline prices a good thing?

A: When you’re running for president and looking for a hammer to use on the incumbent.

Of course, the main Republican challengers to President Barack Obama aren’t saying they like higher gas prices; quite the opposite. But in their zeal to blame the president’s policies for the recent spike, they’re grossly oversimplifying the issue and misleading the public.

Even one of Big Oil’s big wigs, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, says blame for today’s high prices rests with international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. In an interview with NBC on Friday, Tillerson said, “What has led to the recent run-up is the raising of rhetoric” over Iran.

Nowhere this side of Israel has the rhetoric regarding Iran been hotter than among GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

Speculators worried that a Persian Gulf conflict could cut the flow of Middle East oil have run up the price of crude, which closed Friday near $107.50 per barrel, about 10 percent higher than a month ago. (Locally, last month’s fire at the BP Cherry Point refinery also has pushed pump prices higher.)

Meanwhile, the Republican hopefuls ridicule Obama for saying there’s little any president can do to affect short-term energy prices — even though that’s the clear consensus of economists. The GOP challengers hint at easy answers, such as quick approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline between Alberta and the Gulf Coast, which Obama has so far rejected. (TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, is redrawing its route to avoid environmentally sensitive areas in Nebraska. Approval may yet come.)

But the effect Keystone would have on U.S. prices is far from clear. Testimony before Canada’s National Energy Board in 2009 suggests most of the crude oil that would run through the pipeline would go directly to the Gulf Coast for export, and that gas prices in the Midwest could actually rise because of related supply reductions.

The president’s “all of the above” energy strategy — drawing from a variety of sources, old and new, fossil and renewable — isn’t a quick fix, but it best serves the nation’s interests, today and tomorrow.

That includes increases in domestic oil production (which is occurring, by the way). Given that world supplies are finite, however, another crucial part of the solution lies in lessening demand. That’s why the administration is also right to push for greater fuel-efficiency standards in cars and trucks.

Easy answers are attractive. When it comes to meeting the nation’s energy needs, however, they’re usually unrealistic. When politicians promote them, voters should be skeptical.

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