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Politics, oil and dictators
Media General News Service


May 09, 2006
Tuesday AM

WASHINGTON - The eight years after 1977 are remembered for many things, but some people are looking back on it as the golden era of American energy efficiency.

Congress found out it could set standards for fuel economy in motor vehicles and get dramatic results.

Then, when prices got lower as oil supplies increased, it found out the public would abandon conservation and go right back to guzzling gas.

For a while, though, we were a little bit energy-independent.

"Together with spiking oil prices, a conservationist ethic tightened America's energy belt," writes political commentator Kevin Phillips. "Between 1977 and 1985 - and in the face of an expanding economy - oil demand fell by more than one-sixth. The percentage of oil consumed in the United States annually that had to be imported shrank from 46 percent to 30 percent. Inasmuch as two-thirds of the petroleum used in the United States went to keep automobiles on the roads, the CAFE (corporate average fuel efficiency) standards enacted in 1975 were a linchpin in this reduction."

Phillips was a Republican strategist and conservative consultant for several decades. In 1969, he wrote the bible for the Republican takeover of the South called "The Emerging Republican Majority." He brought the term "Sun Belt" into the political lexicon. Later, as an independent writer, he became a critic of both President George H.W. Bush and his son.

Congress, in its panic over rising fuel prices and evidence of a voter rebellion, is now showing some interest in increasing CAFE standards from the existing 27.5 to 33 mpg. That idea was rejected by large House and Senate margins when prices were far lower. But the votes may be there now with gas at $3 per gallon and still rising.

Phillips' book, "American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century," contains a wealth of background from the current oil squeeze hitting American consumers at the pump.

In his opinion, the conservation movement began to ebb in the mid-1980s because of lower gasoline prices and a de-emphasis on renewable energy by the Reagan administration. Reagan "put the ignition key back into the great American automobile culture," he writes. Detroit soon was forsaking fuel economy to concentrate on power, acceleration and speed.

Muscle cars and SUVs dominated the Reagan and Bush I years, and into the days of Clinton, whose image was a bachelor pickup truck with Astroturf in the back. Surveys showed that drivers of full-sized pickups and large SUVs were predominantly supporters of Bush II.

The security moms in their SUVs along such places as the I-4 corridor in Florida, where Bush went in the last hours of the campaign, were his margin, Phillips said. Now the gas crunch has them in a crunch along with other middle-class people across the nation who may be heavily in debt and may drive long distances to work in the red states.

Some in the administration still think the solution is goosing supply, rather than conservation.

That's why Vice President Cheney was poking around in Kazakhstan last week with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the autocratic Kazakh ruler who controls one of the world's largest untapped oil fields.

Cheney is trying to steer Kazakh oil to the West through a southern pipeline terminating in Turkey, rather than through Russia.

To do this, he must butter up Nazarbayev, whose price may be no Western democracy movements knocking at his door. The Kazakh claims to be popularly elected, but one of his political opponents has turned up dead and outside observers say the others had little better chance.

Phillips contends the Bush administration's consistent denials that it invaded Iraq to get control of its oil reserves are quite simply "lies." He offers this more as a deduction than anything.

Oil is a strategic substance. The Persian Gulf has long been designated a region of "vital importance" to the United States.

Without question, however, oil is a political and economic lubricant, more so in this country than others and with this administration than others. President Bush, to borrow Phillips' analogy, has to keep this bicycle moving ahead or it will keel over with him on it. That is not a comfortable posture for him or for the country.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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