Speaking of Energy

NPR's Debbie Elliot examines the arguments and assertions swirling around high gas prices.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

We're starting a series on oil and high gas prices, looking at some of the solutions to the crisis upon us. Before we get to that, let's check a few of the claims that Congress is making about high gas prices. Republicans and Democrats agree on one thing, that the other party is mostly to blame. Debbie Elliott is on the gas trail.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: I started my quest at, where else, a gas station. I visited the Kensington Service Center on Antique Row in Kensington, Maryland. The gas pumps here are antiques. You have to pay double what they show because they aren't equipped for prices higher than four dollars a gallon.

Ms. MYRNA COLLET (Customer, Kensington Service Center, Maryland): I'm just afraid to fill up, so I just put like 50. I try to make it be 10, you know, that I'm just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: Myrna Collet is among the customers here who offered their thoughts on why gas is so high, and what should be done about it.

Ms. COLLET: There's a shortage right? We don't have enough of it. The less we have, the more demand, the higher the prices.

ELLIOTT: She thinks public transportation and solar-powered cars are the answer, but others like Mike Lang (ph) say it's time to end the country's dependence on foreign oil.

Mr. MIKE LANG (Customer, Kensington Service Center, Maryland): My complaint is not enough domestic production. You know, there are oil reserves in the U.S. that we're just not tapping, so that's sort of - you can complain about the foreign oil, but we're not drilling any of our own.

ELLIOTT: Many of the customers I spoke with wanted government action. Here's Dan Botkis (ph) of Kensington.

Mr. DAN BOTKIS (Customer, Kensington Service Center, Maryland): I don't know why Congress doesn't step in and try to solve this problem. We certainly hope that with the election coming up, a lot of them are talking about that they're concerned about it, and I certainly hope that they will do something about it. That's the key.

ELLIOTT: Not necessarily, according to Severin Borenstein. He's the director of the University of California Energy Institute.

Dr. SEVERIN BORENSTEIN (Haas School of Business, University of California): Well, most of what we're going through right now has nothing to do with anything the Congress or the president could do. The fact is that the worldwide demand for oil has been increasing, and supply has not been keeping up.

ELLIOTT: House Republicans have been relentless in their message that the key to lower prices is more domestic oil and gas production. Here's Texas Congressman Mac Thornberry.

Representative MAC THORNBERRY (Republican, Texas): Every bit of energy we can produce here at home is one less barrel of oil we have to buy from overseas.

ELLIOTT: Congressional Democrats have opposed more drilling.

Representative JAY INSLEE (Democrat, Washington): We know that just poking more holes in the ground cannot solve this problem.

ELLIOTT: Washington State Democrat Jay Inslee.

Representative INSLEE: What can solve this problem is innovation. Innovation like the A123 Battery Company in Boston that's going to allow us to drive electric cars. The Phoenix Motor Car Company that's going to have an electric car that gets 100 miles just on electrical charge. The Sapphire Energy Company that's developed a gasoline from algae-based sources.

ELLIOTT: Borenstein says replacing fossil fuels with algae or even electricity is unrealistic.

Dr. BORENSTEIN: We have such a major dependence on oil right now that there's no way that any of these alternative technologies are going to cause a sudden break upon our consumption. The batteries, unfortunately, have just not improved as quickly as we had hoped 10 or 20 years ago that they would. So fully replacing cars with electric cars is a difficult step that we haven't been able to make, and really can't make under the current technology.

ELLIOTT: His bottom line...

Dr. BORENSTEIN: There's almost nothing the Congress or the president can do in the short run to reduce the price at the pump. Even in the longer run, there's not much they can do to reduce the cost per gallon.

ELLIOTT: Back at the Kensington Service Center, mother of three Joanne Shmader (ph) has just filled up her small Mazda Protege.

Ms. JOANNA SHMADER (Customer, Kensington Service Center, Maryland): 45 dollars, ouch.

ELLIOTT: It hurts, but she's not complaining.

Ms. SHMADER: Actually, I like that prices are high because I think that people should drive less. I think that people should conserve and use energy more wisely, so I think this is OK.

ELLIOTT: That, says Severin Borenstein, is the best solution, to reduce consumption so that when high prices persist, you're less affected by them.

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