John McCain Wants to Drill in Your Toilet, II

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Dean Baker
The Guardian Unlimited, September 1, 2008

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Offshore oil drilling won't reduce gas prices, but the Republicans are counting on the US public to remain uninformed.

One has to be careful when making jokes about the Republican presidential campaign. They may turn out to be true.

A month ago I wrote a column saying that John McCain wants to drill in your toilet. This comment was intended as a joke at the time, but it turns out to pretty much reflect the Republican position. The Republicans' most effective slogan for the fall election is "drill here, drill now." It all depends on your definition of "here".

The basic issue is straightforward. There is very little oil potentially available in the areas in which the Republicans are anxious to drill here and now. The Energy Information Agency (these are people who work for President Bush) estimates that the oil in the offshore protected areas will eventually add about 0.2% to world's daily oil output. This would be sufficient to lower the price of gas by 3-4 cents a gallon.

Furthermore, even with the best efforts to drill here and now, it will still take many years to get any oil whatsoever from these protected areas. Regardless of how anxious McCain and the Republicans might be to damage the environment, oil companies will not just spend tens of millions of dollars blindly drilling deepwater wells. They first have to survey the terrain carefully and then dig test wells. The EIA projects that it will take 10 years before we get the first drops of oil from drilling in currently protected areas and close to 20 years before we get our full 3-4 cent a gallon savings. That won't do a lot of good for people trying to make ends meet this year.

The remarkable story here is that the people who follow energy policy know these basic facts. Yet, the Republicans are pushing the drill here, drill now line because they are betting the public can be kept in the dark. Just as tens of millions of people supported the war in Iraq because they thought that Saddam Hussein was tied to the attack on the World Trade Center, the Republicans are betting that they gain votes in November because tens of millions of people will believe that they are offering a credible plan to substantially reduce gas prices in the new future.

In this respect, they are counting on their allies in major national media outlets like CBS, NBC, NPR, the New York Times and Washington Post. The job of the media is to inform the public. If the media effectively informed the public on this issue, they would be telling people that the Republicans are proposing an energy policy that can at best have a very modest impact on oil prices in the distant future, and no impact whatsoever for the near-term future. The Republicans are betting that the media doesn't bust them and tell the public the truth on this one.

So far, the Republican's faith has been rewarded. Few news stories have given the public the facts on the oil available in the offshore protected areas. As a result, polls show that the majority of voters believe that drilling in these areas can have a substantial impact on oil prices in the very near future.

Perhaps we should introduce a system of merit pay for reporters and news producers in which their pay depends on their success in educating the public on key issues, just as many school districts make the pay of school teachers dependent on how well their students perform.

School teachers whose students perform badly don't get raises and could even get fired. Imagine that we applied the same standards to CBS, NBC, NPR and the Washington Post. If their audience couldn't answer basic questions about important public policy issues then the reporters responsible get their pay cut. If the audiences are especially poorly informed, then the reporters get fired.

Unfortunately, this sort of accountability in the media doesn't exist. Most political reporters sound like high school drama coaches as they spend their time talking about candidates' appearance and speaking mannerisms. They almost never bother to discuss the positions advocated by the candidates – that might require a few minutes of real work.

Of course the candidates know that the reporters won't ever bother to verify the claims they make, which gives them incentive to make whatever outlandish claims are most convenient. This is why we have McCain promising to drill for oil in our toilets and most voters actually believing that this will lower the price of gas.


Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer (www.conservativenannystate.org). He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect's web site.