A Letter To My Representatives On Oil Prices

Dear Senators Burr and Dole and Representative Jones,

Last week I listened on C-SPAN to the testimony of oil executives from the big five oil companies. As a father of five who is forced to drive a large van, this issue is of great concern to me. I recognize that there are things that I as a consumer can do, and I have been trying to do them. I combine trips, make as few trips as possible, and use one of our more fuel-efficient vehicles when I can.

However, you know there is very little consumers can do when they have to get to their jobs and they have long commutes. America is not laid out like Europe. We often have long drives to church, grocery stores, jobs, and extended family. This is especially true of rural Americans of whom I am one.

There also seems to be very little that citizens can do. The political process has become so layered and policy issues so complex that many Americans feel the best they can do is to get through their day-to-day lives and hope that their leaders are wise enough, diligent enough, and courageous enough to do something about national and global issues that lie way outside the average citizen’s grasp or control.

It seems the only thing that we can do as citizens is write the occasional letter to our elected representatives and give them our input. Here’s mine.

I do not now remember if the hearings were held before the House or the Senate, but one of the Congressional questioners said that we need short-term, medium-term, and long-term approaches to this very difficult problem. Score 1 for wisdom.

I am a Republican and an evangelical Christian, and I am also a student of history. Capitalism was built on a foundation of integrity, frugality, and standards. Large corporations often provide a lot of jobs, a lot of economic growth, and a lot of innovation, and free trade is not the bugaboo it’s often made out to be. (Auto mechanics, teachers, doctors, lawyers, grocers, dentists, and a host of other jobs are quite safe from the threat of being moved to India.) However, a corporation’s final loyalty is to the shareholder, and the shareholder thinks short-term.

In the early days of capitalism, religious and cultural standards and personal integrity helped offset the desires of personal gain at all cost. Early corporations understood that they had obligations to their employees, their community, and their nation. Today, unfortunately, large multinational corporations need incentives to do what it would have been unthinkable not to do in the past.

With that in mind, Congress needs to realize that while the free market ultimately brings increased prosperity, innovation, and opportunity there is a place for judicious political oversight on behalf of the citizenry.

It seems clear that America must lead the way in searching for, developing, and utilizing alternative energy sources. It also seems clear that a much needed short-term solution to the current rising cost of gas is an increase in supply. How can that be accomplished while encouraging the oil companies to not merely focus on short-term profit? I think Congress needs to immediately pass legislation to allow greater access to American oil sources such as those in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and in the Pacific Ocean.

If you do that, however, what is to stop the oil companies from just exploiting those resources for the short-term gain of their shareholders? I suggest that in the legislation that opens those resources it be mandated that any corporation that develops those resources be required to put 20% of the profits made on those resources into developing alternative energy sources and the infrastructure to accommodate them.

In the short term, this would have the benefits of immediately reducing the cost of a gallon of gas at the pump, which would, in turn, speed up recovery and maybe even stop the fall of the dollar. It would have the further benefit of decreasing American dependency upon foreign oil. Yet, it would also be planning for the future by investing profits into developing sustainable alternative fuel sources that would contribute to American energy independence in the long term.

The gentleman from Exxon was indeed correct when he said that our energy problems cannot be solved merely by pouring money into programs. People confuse spending with constructive spending, and some people, mostly on the other side of the isle, confuse an ideology of spending with loving their neighbors. There must be a quantum change, a conceptual change. What’s truly needed, and he was right about this, is an investment in people who can look at a problem from new angles, think laterally, and have a true eureka moment—the same kind of moment that led to the replacement of candles with light bulbs.

What’s sad is that Exxon cannot truly believe its own rhetoric. Our spending reflects our values and our beliefs; therefore, it is unlikely that Exxon, or any other oil company, is really looking towards making that kind of quantum leap because $100 million is only a limp gesture at best.

Congress needs to encourage young people to go into energy science. We cannot leave it to the oil companies to invest in our future. Congress should institute a program that will forgive the student loan debt of college students who major in the sciences, engineering, or math and then go to work in the energy field, and Congress needs to develop other, similar, educational incentives. Invest in students not institutions.

Further, Congress needs to invest in developing the kind of infrastructure that would allow for the distribution of alternative energy sources. Corporations, like people—and electricity—far too often take the path of least resistance. If Congress helps fund the needed infrastructure, it is more likely that companies will invest in the energy. “If you build it they will come.”

Investing in both science education and national energy infrastructure seems to me to be the most viable mid-term goals that we can adopt. Again, both of those could be funded by a profit earned from American resources that now are closed to development, thus linking the short-term and mid-term proposals I have suggested.

I am not an economist, an energy expert, or a businessman, so I do not see, right off hand, any way to make real long-term proposals. In fact, I have serious doubts about anyone’s ability to effectively plan decades into the future. The path to the future is probably curved like space-time itself. If we try to walk straight to it, human avarice, foolishness, and selfishness will in all likelihood lead us into the often tragic unintended consequences of good intentions.

The best we can do is create both a climate and structure that encourage humanity’s best efforts, natures, and visions. Even then, we have to step back periodically, pull out our spiritual sextants, and realign ourselves. Focusing too far in the future probably stretches human capability, and we run the risk of warping our vision, misplacing our priorities, and neglecting the real needs of today.

The last line of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises reads “isn’t it pretty to think so.” It is pretty to think that we can project ourselves decades into the future and chart a true and straight path to where we would like to be, but the Soviet Union proved that even a five-year plan can prove to be too daunting of an obstacle when we focus upon goals and ignore process.

Therefore I would urge you to not be so concerned about deciding for our grandchildren what kind of public policy they should have. Instead, I urge you to strive today, and in the near future, to work toward the manageable goal of creating the kinds of climate and structure between business and government that will foster the cooperation necessary to both nurture innovation and economic growth while simultaneously securing American interest both within and without through energy independence, without diminishing the rights, privileges, and freedoms of American citizens.

I think that the short-term and mid-term proposals that I have suggested are a starting point, and I would encourage you all to work with your fellow members of Congress, the President of the United States, and the oil companies to begin working toward some solution for the current energy crisis. This is a priority for me in this election season.


Bo Grimes

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