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GAS PRICES: Blaming Big Oil, Obama hits a gusher
0612Michael Wilson
Michael J. Wilson

In 1981, I was a door-to-door canvasser for the Citizen Labor Energy Coalition.

It was a memorable year for other reasons, too. Charles and Diana were wed. MTV was born. Muhammad Ali fought, and lost, his final fight. President Reagan survived an assassination attempt, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did not. Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman on the Supreme Court. The first space shuttle shot spectacularly into space.

Ah, those were the days. I also remember being appalled as gas prices doubled from 1979 to $1.35 a gallon. This was just a few years after the first oil crisis forced Americans nationwide into lengthy gas lines and smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

It was clear the country needed an energy policy that didn't depend on deregulating the oil industry or throwing more tax breaks at them, hoping it would lead to greater fuel efficiency and less reliance on foreign oil.

Fast forward 30 years to 2011; gas prices tickling $4 a gallon, a nation growing increasingly reliant on foreign oil - and the U.S. military ever more entrenched in the oil-rich Mideast.

Here we are and still in need of an energy policy. And who is to blame for the lack of progress? Is it President Obama, the oil companies, or members of Congress? The answer is no, yes and yes.

A recent CNN poll showed 61 percent of the public place a "great deal of blame" on oil companies versus 25 percent who blame President Obama.

It's easy to see why the companies get blamed. The "Big Five" oil companies - ExxonMobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and BP - reported a combined first quarter profit of $62.7 billion. Since 2000, their combined profits approach $1 trillion.

That's right, as government funds are being slashed for infant formula for low-income mothers, Medicare, Head Start programs, the Peace Corps and high-speed rail, while teachers, firefighters and police are being laid off by the boatload - Big Oil's $4 billion in tax breaks remains secure.

President Obama has proposed ending these subsidies. Congressional Republicans - the party of low taxes and free markets - however, continue to fight to retain every oil industry tax break, refusing to even consider or comprehend their hypocrisy.

For example, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who infamously apologized to BP after it devastated the Gulf of Mexico, defended the subsidies as incentives needed to save companies like ExxonMobil from going bust.

You and I should be so lucky as to go bust like ExxonMobil.

Since 1998, the oil and gas industry spent more than $1 billion on lobbying, according to Poor Rep. Barton only got $161,870 in contributions in 2010.

It's clear to see why our 1981 energy policy can't get changed.

The companies like it, their protectors in Congress like it, even some presidents liked it.

While President Obama has tried to help shift to green energy and rely less on imported oil, he followed an oil ticket to the White House.

In 2000 and 2004, the Republicans won with oilmen George W. Bush and Dick Cheney at both ends of the presidential ticket.

Change is hard. But if $4 a gallon gas doesn't do it, maybe $5 a gallon might. Don't think it's not coming. One thing is for sure: We are never going to see 1981's $1.35 again.

In "The Path to Power," historian Robert Caro described the political ambitions of Lyndon Johnson in 1940, then a 32-year-old congressman. Johnson, born dirt poor and still struggling, surprisingly turned down a lobbyist's offer of a lucrative interest in an oil business. "It would kill me politically," Johnson explained.

It was clear that Rep. Johnson had unlimited ambition and high hopes for his political future. It was also clear that he believed that no oilman could be elected president. Ah, those were the days.

Michael J. Wilson is the national director of Americans for Democratic Action.

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