Politics of Oil: Will High Prices Spur Lawmakers to Act?

Consumers are seeing gasoline prices tick up, but little momentum in Washington.

ByABC News
March 7, 2011, 7:22 PM

WASHINGTON, March 8, 2011— -- Consumers are starting to feel the pressure at the pump as the crisis in Libya rages on, but in Washington, there's little momentum and political will to engage in the deeply polarized energy debate and experts say the script is unlikely to change.

The national average price of a gallon of unleaded gasoline spiked to $3.52 on Monday, the highest price ever during the month of March, and ahead of the peak summer driving season.

The White House has discussed the option of tapping into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and has said it is looking into various options should a large scale supply disruption occur, but the action so far has been limited to rhetoric, even on Capitol Hill.

It's still too early to gauge the political impact, experts say, but both Republicans and Democrats need to take cautious steps in tackling this issue that is deeply divided along ideological lines.

Some argue that the Libya crisis proves that the United States needs to boost its own offshore production for energy security, but another school of thought says the answer is to develop clean energy technology because of worries about the environmental costs of fossil fuel production and consumption.

"Parties are more ideologically polarized than they ever have been before," said David Spence, an associate professor and co-director of the Energy Management and Innovation Center at the University of Texas. "That makes it harder to work to bridge this divide, which just seems to be growing more intense and wider."

There is little consensus on how to tackle the issue of energy security. From President Reagan to President Obama, most U.S. presidents have stated they want to see a more independent future for the United States when it comes to oil, but imports from foreign countries have only grown in recent decades.

Multiple efforts to enact comprehensive energy legislation that would boost clean energy and technological investment have collapsed, most recently last year when senators failed to find common ground.

"When something like this happens it does make people think about that vulnerability more," Spence said. "On the margins it will increase political concern about energy security, but whether that will lead to a bill being pushed through Congress, that seems unlikely to me."

Proponents of energy independence are hopeful that lawmakers will slip in some incentives, such as tax credits for hybrid cars, into bigger legislation, like they did in 2008, the last time oil prices had a sudden spike.

"Congress at the end of the day, for energy policy, is really driven by constituent pressure," said Anne Korin, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. "When oil prices are high, you are more likely to see a substantial move."

But with talk of economy and budget -- specifically cost-cutting measures -- dominating Capitol Hill, there's little impetus to revisit that subject, unless the pain is sustained.

"Energy prices are inherently political. So many people care about them," said Peter Van Doren, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. "If high prices stay around for some sustained period of time ... all through the summer, then yes, there's pressure for Congress to act. The only reason they wouldn't is because this is not an election year. If it were, I think we'd see all sorts of things being pulled out of the hat."

What is likely to touch political nerves in the shorter term is the discussion of tapping into the SPR, 727 million barrels of oil that are kept in underground salt domes in case of an emergency or supply disruption.