Obama: Ready To Tap Oil Reserve If Needed — which it ISN’T, not by a long shot

The president at this afternoon's presser. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Well, gasoline prices are rising toward levels that might, just might, cause some of us to face reality and acknowledge that it’s not a good idea at all to be so desperately dependent on cheap oil from crazy-dangerous parts of the world, and what are our elected leaders — Democrats and Republicans — doing?

Why, what they always do — pandering. But there’s pandering, and then there’s pandering.

The GOP is busily blaming Barack “Root of All Evil” Obama. The president himself is responding by saying, at a press conference today, that he’s prepared to tap the strategic oil reserve, if needed.

But that last part is key, and his way out as a rational man. It’s like his promise to “start” withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by a certain date, which in no way commits him to draw down dangerously before it’s wise to do so. Obama’s smart; he’s not going to pander so far that he commits himself to something irresponsible. This is a quality that he has demonstrated time and again, and which has greatly reassured me ever since he beat my (slightly) preferred candidate for the presidency. This is the quality — or one of them — that made me glad to say so often, back in 2008, that for the first time in my editorial career, both major-party candidates for president were ones I felt good about (and both of whom we endorsed, in their respective primaries).

It’s certainly more defensible than Mr. Boehner’s reflexive partisan bashing. And it’s WAY more defensible than Al “Friend of the Earth” Gore asking Bill Clinton to tap the reserve to help him win the 2000 election.

To quote from the report I just saw on the NPR site:

Obama said he’s prepared to tap the U.S. emergency oil reserve if needed. But as gas prices climbed toward $4 a gallon, the president said the U.S. must adopt a long-term strategy of conservation and domestic production to wean itself off foreign oil.

“We’ve been having this conversation for nearly four decades now. Every few years gas prices go up, politicians pull out the same political playbook, and nothing changes,” Obama said.

“I don’t want to leave this to the next president,” he said.

Some in Congress have been calling on Obama to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And the president made clear Friday that that was an option, although he indicated he wasn’t yet prepared to exercise it. He declined to specify the conditions that would trigger the step, but said it was teed up and could happen quickly if he chooses to call for it….

His threshold, based on what he said, is a Hurricane Katrina, or worse. Personally, I’d raise the bar a bit higher than that, but he’s on the right track, trying to set a high standard. (You make a disruption like Katrina the standard, then next thing you know, you’re tempted to lower it to, say, a BP oil spill — and that’s not the direction you want to go in.)

The key word here is “strategic,” a threshold that I would think wouldn’t be crossed until we have a sustained inability to GET oil to power our economy — something we came close to, in spots, in recent crises. But it seems to me one only turns to such “strategic” options as a last resort. The president should be “prepared to tap the U.S. emergency oil reserve if needed” in the same sense he is expected to be prepared to crack open the “football” and activate the codes for going nuclear. OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but you get where I’m going with this. It’s something we hope and pray never happens, and we do our best to pursue policies that avoid such an eventuality.

By the way, back to that excerpt above. I particularly love “the president said the U.S. must adopt a long-term strategy of conservation and domestic production to wean itself off foreign oil.” Earlier today, I disparaged the president for being no Energy Party man. (I was essentially repeating an observation I made about both him and McCain in a July 6, 2008, column.)

But maybe I was wrong. If he keeps saying things like that, he may deserve the Energy nomination in 2012 after all.

19 thoughts on “Obama: Ready To Tap Oil Reserve If Needed — which it ISN’T, not by a long shot

  1. bud

    Drilling in ever more difficult places in the hopes of attaining energy independence is nothing but a fantasy. Our only real hope is to dramatically reduce our use of fossil fuels, especially oil. The Europeans are at least 20 years ahead of us and they manage a very comfortable living. The idea that we must grow economically at all costs is a delusion. If we can somehow convince people that they can get by with a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle than they’re accustomed to it would be worth several million barrels of oil per day. The cost of hybrid and even pure electric vehicles will drop as more people buy them. They will buy them if the price of gasoline stays high. Here’s my 5 point plan:

    1. Tack on a 50 cents per gallon gasoline tax. That would help pay down the dreaded national debt and take away any doubt that gasoline prices will be affortable for the 2 Hummer household.

    2. Ban offshore drilling in new locations over 5000 feet deep. Also continue the ban in the ANWR.

    3. Build more nuclear plants. This is a tough one for me since I’m not convinced they are safe. But it seems better than the oil drilling alternative.

    4. Improve the electric grid so that the windy part of the west and offshore become more attractive for wind turbine generation.

    5. Build high-speed rail so that it becomes a serious alternative to the fuel guzzling auto and airline industries.

  2. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Yes, especially to high speed rail, although I’d take regular speed rail to Chucktown if it were available. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to actually *take* one of the trains that blocks Columbia traffic to somewhere besides Florida or the NE corridor?

  3. Doug Ross


    Take the cost of the high speed rail to Charleston (start with a couple billion dollars) and then divide it by the number of people who would actually ride it to make it cost effective. Let us know how many riders it would take to be feasible.

    Let me give you a start: ten million trips (every man, woman, and child in the state times two) would still cost $200 each. Would you pay $200 to ride a train each way to Charleston and then have to figure out how to get around town once there?

    For more information, look at how successful Amtrak is (or isn’t).

  4. Brad

    Good point (if you want to go and be all technical and well-informed). It makes sense. And it’s another level on which the prez is being smart…

  5. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Amtrak doesn’t meet the tipping point in terms of routes and times to make it very useful. I wasn’t saying “high speed” rail to Chucktown, anyway, and if ever there were a place in SC (not counting resorts) that is easy to get around, the peninsula is it. You could supplement with Zipcars and bikes.

  6. Brad

    Yeah… unfortunately, with that high water table, there’s no Tube in the future of Mayor Joe’s town…

    Sigh… I miss the Tube…

  7. Karen McLeod

    Doug, don’t we already have freight trains between here and Charleston? Could we not designate some as “no-stop” trains, and tack on a few passenger cars?

  8. Phillip

    I heard a “teaser” yesterday or the day before on NPR where somebody said that only when gas hits $6 a gallon will there be a “tipping point” towards significant, real societal change as regards our consumption of oil, and the whole way we think about transportation, etc.

    On an individual basis, I’m in no condition to want to deal with $6-a-gallon gas, but for the sake of the country, I have to confess I’m kind of quietly pulling for gas prices to go that crazy.

  9. bud

    Doug, let’s figure the REAL cost for that trip to Charleston by car not just the cost of the heavily subsidized gasoline. The IRS gives about a half dollar for every mile of vehicle use. That comes to about $55 for a one way trip to Charleston. Then we can throw in all the environmental costs for the greenhouse gas emissions plus the regular air pollutants, land fill pollutants for batteries, tires etc. That comes to at least $50. Then we have to factor in a risk factor for all the traffic crashes, injuries and deaths that occur each year on our highways. That works out to around $ 2 billion per year divided by 2 billion Vehicle Miles of travel or around $1 per mile or about $110 for that 110 mile trip to Charleston. Then add the hidden cost of providing military protection to keep the oil flowing. Nationally we spend $700 billion. SCs portion is around a half billion or so. We can conservatively estimate about half the military cost goes to keeping the oil lanes open. So divide the quarter billion in military costs by the 2 billion VMT and we get about 12.5 cents/mile for military stuff. Now we add in another $15 bucks or so for the military. Add it up and we have $55 + $50 + $110 + $15 = $230. All of a sudden that $200 train fare doesn’t seem so bad.

  10. martin

    I made a comment on a later thread about trains; didn’t know this was a more appropriate place.

    I live about halfway between Columbia and Charleston. I don’t now where they are coming from, but there must be close to 15 trains in a 24 hour period coming (and going) through carrying coal to, I guess, the Santee Cooper plants around Lakes Moultrie. They must travel on to Charleston and pick up stuff from the Port?

    It is truly a shame that we can’t hitch a passenger car onto some.

  11. Herb Brasher

    Bud, we’re on the same page, but I would point out that Europe essentially has the same problems, even with $8 per gallon gas. Yes, they do have smaller vehicles in general, and yet those who can afford them will buy bigger cars and drive them and the small ones 100 mph (Germany). True, there is more use of mass transit, but population density in Europe has something to do with that.

    I don’t see either continent, Europe or N. America, really making significant strides towards alternate sources of energy–but I’m glad that our president is hopefully doing some leading here.

  12. Steven Davis

    Those numbers bud came up with MAY be true… but who’s going to pay $400 for a round trip to Charleston by train? Then figure out how to get around Charleston once they get there.

    I’d love to see bud do the same assessment on rail service to Charleston. First thing I want to see is how much it’s going to cost to lay 100 miles of high speed track in land purchases and actual construction costs. It’s estimated at a million dollars a mile to build two lanes of highway and that’s just dirt and concrete.

  13. Doug Ross


    If you or Kathryn will pay me $150 each way to drive you to Charleston, I’ll do it anytime you want. In a nice car with whatever radio station you want to listen to.

    Your numbers are bogus.

  14. Steven Davis

    I was planning a 3300 mile round trip this summer, now I don’t know if I can afford it… with this new trip planning calculator it’s going to cost me $66,000 + gas.

  15. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Actually, Doug, you would not. I am going tonight and tomorrow, from 6-midnight each and Wednesday 3:30-midnight. Are you available?

    The point bud is making is that if passenger rail received the same subsidies automotive travel receives, it wouldn’t have to cost $200. Other commenters are saying that if the 800 pound gorillas that are the rail freight companies (see, for ex. Cayce’s efforts to have them paint their overpass) were required to add some passenger cars in exchange for their privileges, it certainly need not cost $200!

    ..but you knew that.

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