Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Summer of Oil

A few years ago, I remember hearing that Henry James said that two most beautiful words in the English language were “summer afternoon.”

And the most-volatile words in America’s political lexicon are “summer” and “oil.”

We’re in for another “Summer of Oil” here in the U.S. And it’s been this way for a while.

Take the oil price shocks of the 1970s. Skyrocketing prices led to fuel shortages in the summer of 1979. Gas spiked to a “buck a gallon.” Meantime, TV cameras captured images of exasperated motorists sweltering in the summer sun. The lines to just buy a few gallons winded for blocks from service stations.

Those pictures helped do in President Carter in the 1980 election.

Over the years, amateur economists camped out in barber shops and driving taxi cabs in Queens have used the price of gas as a barometer to measure the state of the economy, restlessness in the electorate and the prowess of the president. But it’s especially acute in summertime when the mercury climbs and folks load up the station wagon for a trip to the beach.

In 1990, the oil season never flourished until August. The late-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2 of that year, sending spasms throughout the world’s petroleum markets. The U.S. didn’t move against Iraq until January of the following year. But the dye was cast in August and September as people fretted about Iraq’s control of Kuwait’s oil reserves.

The summer of 2005 is best known for meteorology and not oil. But the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina limited the country’s ability to refine petroleum in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast.

The price of gas jumped exponentially during the summer of 2008. Consumers paid as high as $5 a gallon during that oil shock. Meantime, Republicans commandeered the House floor day-after-day throughout August, imploring Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to call Congress back into session and pass legislation to approve widespread drilling. The nomination of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) as Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) vice presidential candidate energized drilling advocates. Echoes of “Drill baby, drill” could be heard throughout the corridors of the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN, when Republicans met there in early September for their convention.

2008 proved to be the most-robust Summer of Oil in years.

The summer of 2009 was a mild oil season. But any farmer will tell you to watch for crops to explode in record yields the year after a drought.

Which brings us to 2010’s Summer of Oil.

Gasoline prices remain low as there’s a glut of crude on the world stage. But this year’s summer of oil is much different than its predecessors. And it could pose consequences for President Obama and Democrats in Congress this fall.

The oil season broke early this year. It was the political equivalent of premature spring thaw when a rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20. The accident killed 11 people and unleashed a gusher of crude gurgling into the sea.

Today is Day 51 of the crisis. In fact, media reminds us each day with a graphic emblazoned across television screens or in a square box tucked somewhere into the middle of a newspaper article.

The scene is reminiscent of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 and 1980. Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 American hostages for 444 days. On his evening broadcasts, legendary CBS anchor Walter Cronkite would sign off by reminding viewers how many days the hostages had been in captivity. Shortly after the siege began, ABC News president Roone Arledge tapped veteran journalist Ted Koppel to launch a late, nightly newscast titled “The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage-Day XX.” Each broadcast noted how many days the Iranians had held the Americans. The news program eventually evolved into Nightline.

The daily chronicle of the hostage crisis became an albatross strung around the neck of Jimmy Carter. To many voters, the president appeared feeble. Meantime the days in captivity mounted, doubling, tripling and quadrupling in number.

Iran finally liberated the hostages only hours after the U.S. inaugurated Ronald Reagan as president.

So this year’s Summer of Oil is much different than its predecessors. But the themes are similar. The spill has reinvigorated a debate over drilling, just as Mr. Obama agreed to expand offshore drilling options. Soon after the disaster, the president suspended new offshore drilling efforts. Meantime, oil and environmental advocates are at loggerheads.

A stream of criticism about the Obama Administration’s handling of the incident is erupting from Capitol Hill. And just as the oil slicks and tar balls are washing up on the Gulf shores, those Congressional criticisms are starting to pelt the North Lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Many House Republicans, notably Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN), have been particularly critical of the federal government’s response to the spill.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) hinted that the administration exhausted more time casting brickbats at BP than fixing the problem.

“Weeks of blame has done nothing to plug the leak,” McConnell said.

Congress returned to session this week after the Memorial Day break. National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen greeted the lawmakers with the stark warning that the oil spill will linger until fall. If Allen is right, the days will grow in number, climbing upward like a slow-motion version of the spiraling National Debt Clock in Manhattan. And like 30 years ago, media will continue to log the days the oil spill holds the country hostage.

That means the Summer of Oil will spill into the Fall of Elections. And in a very competitive election cycle, Democrats know some voters could blame the party in power if it appears paralyzed to halt the leak.

On Tuesday afternoon, Nancy Pelosi brought together key committee chairs to discuss the cataclysm and indicated Congress may pass some bills to get tough on the oil industry and explore alternative energy sources.

“I don’t know what further evidence anyone would need (to show) that we need a new energy policy in our country,” Pelosi said. “Instead of digging deeper into the core of the Earth, we should be looking to the sun, the wind and the soil for renewables.”

The Iranian hostage crisis imperiled President Carter and Democrats in 1980. Carter lost the White House. Meantime, Republicans seized 35 House seats and won control of the Senate.

2010’s Summer of Oil could be one for the political ages. And unless someone stems the leak soon, the result at the polls could be as powerful as the oil plume belching from the ocean floor.

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