Crank of the Week - August 4, 2008 - Barak Obama

Though we swore we would not give either US presidential candidate a Crank of the Week award this past week's verbal shenanigans have reversed our stand—call it a flip flop if you like. In any case, the Crank of the Week this week is none other than Democratic presidential candidate, Barak Obama, for initiating a series of verbal exchanges between himself and Republican rival, John McCain. The subject? Proper tire inflation and energy savings.

In a sparring match that was an embarrassment to both candidates and the American people, the two presidential candidates argued about whether it would be better to keep close watch on the air pressure in America's car tires or to search for additional oil supplies within American territory. During a speech on August 1st, the Democratic nominee suggested that Americans can increase their car's energy efficiency by checking their tire pressure. Well, yes. Maintaining proper operating pressure in a car's tiers can add a percent or two to gas millage. But then Obama overreached by suggesting that this simple action would save as much energy as could be found by expanding domestic oil exploration. In his own words:

“There are things you can do individually, though, to save energy. ... Making sure your tires are properly inflated - simple thing. But we could save all the oil that they're talking about getting off drilling - if everybody was just inflating their tires? And getting regular tune-ups? You'd actually save just as much.”

In reaction to this statement, McCain responded, “Anybody who says that we can achieve energy independence without using and increasing these existing energy resources either doesn't have the experience to understand the challenge we face or isn't giving the American people some straight talk.”

The Republican presidential nominee's campaign handed out "Obama Energy Plan" tire gauges in front of the Michigan location where Obama was delivering a major address on energy. It also sent out letters offering the "Obama Energy Plan" gauges to campaign donors—a jabbing reference to Obama's earlier statement.

Very funny, but here is the truth; the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that drivers can improve gas mileage by as much as three percent by keeping car tires property inflated. That amounts to about $90 over the lifetime of an average set of tires. While this is not an insignificant savings it is not the solution to the problem of foreign oil dependency. The US imports more than 70 percent of its oil, leaving correcting tier pressure a marginal move at best. Don't misunderstand, every little bit helps, but having presidential candidates argue over such marginal improvements trivializes the problem and distracts from the larger actions that are called for.

As for the amount of oil to be found here in America, both on shore and off, it is simply unknown. The estimates used to arrive at the “only three percent to be found offshore” number frequently quoted by liberal talking heads is based on figures from the US DOE that are decades old (remember, exploring for oil offshore has been banned for more than twenty years). These figures also don't take into account the tremendous improvements in drilling technology in the past quarter century. Not only do modern drilling techniques allow the recovery of more oil from fewer wellheads, they also are much safer from an ecological point of view. All of the oil spills that occurred during Hurricane Katrina were from onshore pipelines and refineries, not from the may drilling platforms that safely rode out the storm.

With gas prices at record levels and polls showing that American consumers want relief, Obama is now advocating tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a dumb idea we have previously reviewed, and has modified his position on offshore oil drilling—saying late last week that it could be feasible if accomplished as part of a bipartisan energy plan done in an environmentally sound way. Public opinion doth make cowards of them all.

On the plus side, Obama is for greater incentives for plugin hybrids and electric cars, an idea that we support. Some strict capitalists will argue that we should let the forces of the market decide what people should drive and the automakers should produce. In theory we agree, but strict adherence to capitalist tenets can be used as a ruse. The cost difference between a hybrid and a non-hybrid does not accurately reflect the true cost to society of the non-hybrid's lower efficiency and greater output of pollutants. This is one of the reasons we have advocated a carbon tax, which would help level the playing field between old, dirty technologies and new, cleaner ones. Obama has opted for the more complicated and abuse prone cap-and-trade option, naturally.

Still, Obama wants to tax the big oil producers' “windfall profits” and use the proceeds to give “tax relief” bonus checks to poorer Americans. This is a perfect scam from the politicians' point of view. First, taxing the oil companies will increase the price of gas at the pump, insuring continued consumer angst, while reducing exploration for new resources, keeping oil prices high in the future. Second, having assured that high gas prices won't come down allows the political class to step in with handouts to offset the cost of their own ill conceived actions—in effect buying the votes of those they are harming with their victims' own money. You cannot be for the people and against the economy yet here is the same old political two step. Obama's a new type of politician? Be on the lookout for flying pigs.