Looking For Oil in All The Wrong Places

Drilling proponents have consistently blocked better fuel economy while raking in big oil cash.

See how much money representatives received from oil companies here.

Since gas prices eclipsed $4 a gallon, conservatives have begun a daily mantra of “Drill Here. Drill Now.” Their drilling targets are unique environmental locations: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf of the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. Their goal is to use Americans’ pain at the pump as an excuse to achieve a long-standing dream of big oil companies to open up these special areas for oil and gas drilling. Yet according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, drilling on the OCS would not affect production or prices until nearly 20 years after companies are granted leases, and even then, “any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant.”

What’s more, many drilling proponents have for 20 years consistently opposed better fuel economy standards that would have reduced oil consumption by millions of barrels per day after five years. Had these legislators supported, rather than opposed, more efficient fuel economy standards in 2001, or after, we would already be reaping some of the benefits.

Conservatives have a dubious legacy of inaction on reducing U.S. oil demand that could reduce prices and lower families’ energy bills. Beginning with model year 1996, conservatives attached a rider to Department of Transportation funding bills that prevented President Clinton from increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, also known as CAFE standards. Even as fuel economy standards in Europe, Japan, and China became more efficient, conservatives also defended loopholes designed to protect SUVs and other “light trucks” used as passenger vehicles from better efficiency standards.

During this decade alone, there have been three bipartisan efforts to modestly raise fuel economy standards, save oil, and reduce gasoline costs. Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Ed Markey (D-MA) offered various fuel economy amendments to energy bills in 2001, 2003, and 2005. These amendments respectively would have closed the “SUV loophole” by including SUVs and other light trucks in the calculation of auto companies’ fleet fuel economy, required action to decrease U.S. oil consumption by 5 percent over seven years, and increased CAFE standards to 33 miles per gallon by 2016.

Had the representatives currently crying to drill the OCS voted for the Boehlert-Markey amendment in 2001, it would be the law of the land today. The United States would use 1 million fewer barrels of oil per day, which is a 5 percent reduction from current consumption. To put these forgone savings in perspective, it took months of President Bush and Vice President Cheney begging to convince the Saudi government to increase its oil production by half of that amount—a half a million barrels per day. Had the Boehlert-Markey amendment passed in 2001, the United States would have saved at least $49.6 billion in 2008 in reduced costs based on the oil price of $134 per barrel.

New congressional leadership in 2007 made passage of more efficient fuel economy standards a top priority. On December 19, 2007, President Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act, which increased fuel economy standards to 35 mpg by 2020. This was the first increase in fuel economy standards in 32 years. This bill will reduce oil consumption by 1.1 million barrels a day in 2020—about equal to current imports from Nigeria.

Despite their sudden concern about high oil and gasoline prices, most of the pro-drilling crowd opposed every one of these efforts to slash oil demand and reduce costs. Unsurprisingly, pro-drilling, anti-fuel-efficiency representatives also received significantly more campaign contributions from big oil.

House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH) opposed all four fuel economy provisions, and suggested as recently as 2007 that raising fuel economy standards would “wreck the American economy.” In 2004, then-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Joe Barton (R-TX) said, “We need a comprehensive energy bill because gasoline prices are up, coal prices are up, natural gas prices are up, crude imports are up, refined product imports are up.” Yet he voted against reducing motor vehicle oil consumption every time.

In 2005, freshman Rep. Michael Burgess, (R-TX) who voted against each fuel economy proposal in his tenure, claimed that the fuel economy amendment was “an irrelevant piece of legislation that is not only unnecessary, it is an outdated solution in search of a 21st-century problem.”

The defeat of fuel economy amendments in 2001, 2003, and 2005 helped keep U.S. oil consumption high. During this time, the big five oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell—made record profits. The representatives that voted to maintain the status quo helped make these huge profits possible.

The representatives who opposed fuel economy amendments every time were well rewarded with campaign contributions from the oil industry. They received an average of $161,686 in campaign contributions from big oil. Representatives who supported cutting oil demand by improving fuel economy only received an average of $31,834 in big oil contributions—one dollar for every five received by opponents.

Oil Contributions and Fuel Economy Votes
Representatives Total Oil and Gas Contributions Average Contribution
Opposed Raising Fuel Economy Standards 100% of the time $14,066,681 $161,686
Opposed Raising Fuel Economy Standards 75% of the time $8,926,454 $114,442
Opposed Raising fuel economy Standards 67% of the time $1,818,951 $69,960
Opposed Raising fuel economy Standards 50% of the time $2,193,583 $98,357
Supported Raising Fuel Economy Standards 100% of the time $4,074,744 $31,834
Supported Raising Fuel Economy Standards 75% of the time $289,226 $41,318
Supported Raising Fuel Economy Standards 67% of the time $90,525 $18,105
First Term Representatives Oil Contributions and Fuel Economy Votes
Representatives Total Oil and Gas Contributions Average Contribution
Opposed Raising Fuel Economy Standards $867,383 $61,956
Supported Raising Fuel Economy Standards $355,883 $9,886
Total Contributions: $32,683,430

Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) acknowledged “the need to increase miles-per-gallon standards” in 2001, but still voted against all four fuel economy proposals. He received over $1.2 million in oil and gas contributions. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) voted against fuel economy four times, and received nearly $1 million in oil money. Fuel economy opponent Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) received over half a million dollars from big oil.

The conservatives clamoring for big oil’s agenda of drilling without borders today are the same ones that blocked measures to reduce gasoline demand during the last decade while collecting exorbitant big oil contributions. Boehner hypocritically accuses the opponents of drilling from sea to shining sea with, “callous indifference as American families and small businesses struggle with $4 per gallon gasoline.” In fact, he and his cohorts callously did big oil’s bidding by blocking badly overdue improvements in fuel economy until they were overwhelmed in 2007.

With oil prices at $140 per barrel and climbing, the Bush administration must swiftly implement the new fuel economy standards, and require cars to average 35 miles per gallon years before the 2020 deadline. Meanwhile, Congress must invest in clean alternative fuels, mass transit, and hyperefficient vehicles to dramatically end America’s oil addiction, reduce consumption, save money, and increase national security.

See how much money representatives received from oil companies here.

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Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow