Testing Politicians' Claims in the Energy Debate

As the weather heats up, so does the rhetoric on Capitol Hill about energy prices. Republicans blame Democrats for blocking domestic oil and gas production. Democrats blame President Bush for $4-a-gallon gasoline, and say the country should invest in alternative energy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're about to check a few of the claims that Congress is making about high gas prices. Republicans and Democrats agree on one thing: They're both sure the other party is to blame. Here's Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): A barrel of oil now costs four times more than it did when President Bush took office. Two oilmen in the White House, cost of oil four times higher.

MONTAGNE: Now the top House Republican, John Boehner, says Democrats are blocking domestic production.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Minority Leader): They're holding American resources hostage, making us more dependent on foreign oil and foreign sources of energy.

MONTAGNE: Those are the claims. NPR Congressional correspondent Debbie Elliot went looking for some clarity.

DEBBIE ELLIOT: I started my quest - 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 $4 a gallon.

Ms. MYRNA KHALID(ph): I'm just afraid to fill up, so I just put, like, 50. I try to make it pretend, you know, that I'm just…

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

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

ELLIOT: She thinks public transportation and solar powered cars are the answer. But others, like Mike Lang, say it's time to end the country's dependence on foreign oil.

Mr. MIKE LANG: My complaint is not on 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 foreign oil, but we're not drilling any of our own.

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

Mr. DAN BACCHUS: 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'll do something about it. That's the key.

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

Professor SEVERIN BORENSTEIN (Director, University of California Energy Institute): Well, most of what we're going through right now has nothing to do with anything that 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.

ELLIOT: I called Borenstein to test some of the claims being made in the Congressional energy debate. 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.

ELLIOT: Thornberry is the sponsor of the No More Excuses Energy Act. Among other things, it would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and allow more drilling offshore. Would that help? Severin Borenstein says no.

Prof. BORENSTEIN: Unfortunately, the reality is there just isn't very much oil in the United States, so that even if we did drill in all the places that had been suggested, when you drop that oil into the world oil market it would have a pretty minor effect. And even that would only occur five or 10 years from now.

ELLIOT: Congressional Democrats have opposed more drilling.

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

ELLIOT: Washington State Democrat Jay Ensley.

Rep. ENSLEY: 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 Motorcar 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.

ELLIOT: But again, Borenstein says replacing fossil fuels with algae or even electricity is unrealistic.

Prof. 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 on 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.

ELLIOT: His bottom line…

Prof. BORENSTEIN: There's almost nothing that 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.

(Soundbite of banging)

ELLIOT: Back at the Kensington service center, mother of three, Joanne Schmeider(ph), has just filled up her small Mazda Protege.

Ms. JOANNE SCHMEIDER: Forty-five dollars. Ouch.

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

Ms. SCHMEIDER: Actually, I like that prices are high, 'cause I think people should drive less. I think that people should conserve and use energy more wisely. So I think this is okay.

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

Debbie Elliot, NPR News.

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