The intellectually barren offshore drilling debate

At least one of Matt Simmons's forecasts is not yet bearing fruit — his 2006 prediction that Peak Oil would come to dominate the 2008 campaign.  For the debate over offshore drilling that's erupted this week has shed absolutely no light on the real issues.

For starters, there's a highly disingenuous calculus behind the flip-flops of John McCain and Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who now favor offshore drilling:  They're sending a message, implicit but unmistakable [Update: Actually, it's completely explicit] , that allowing more offshore drilling will somehow put a voter's Labor Day getaway this year, heretofore unaffordable, within reach.  It will, of course, do no such thing.

That does not put Barack Obama and the Democrats in the right, however.  Obama, who has previously framed the issue of energy with highly inflammatory rhetoric, misrepresents what's at stake when he says, "We can't drill our way out of this problem." 

That much is true.  But drilling can make a problem whose severity neither he nor McCain will acknowledge a little easier to handle.  It will make possible, say, $13 gas in 2015 instead of $14 gas.  That will buy a little more time for science and business to develop whatever non-hydrocarbon source of transportation fuel is in our future.  Because it's not going to happen next year, or maybe even next decade, no matter how much politicians of both parties talk about an "Apollo program" to develop alternative energy sources, which would no doubt meet with as much success as Jimmy Carter's "synfuels" program.  (Betcha forgot about that one.)

The intellectual desert that is the energy debate in this country is laid bare by a single sentence in today's New York Times wrap-up on the drilling debate.  "It is likely to exacerbate the 30-year-old standoff in Washington over whether domestic drilling or conservation is the way to end American dependence on foreign oil."

Memo to Washington:  "Energy independence" is a chimera.  It's not even necessarily desirable if it were even possible, which it is not.  Let the market do its thing, and we'll rapidly find that both domestic drilling and conservation will be essential to making the transition away from oil-based transportation fuel.  Note I did not say a smooth transition.  That is not in the cards.  But it will be a bit less bumpy.  It's the best we can hope for.