NEW YORK (
) -- When it comes to the politics behind the price of gasoline at the pump, especially this week given talk of tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), it's easy to typecast U.S. politicians as the permissive parent playing opposite a spoiled teenager, otherwise known as the U.S. consumer.
Needless to say, both parts are played to perfection. One has the wallet to open and the other is a dependent; one is technically in charge but seems to live in fear and react to the other's, often childish, temper. Ultimately, both reduce energy consumption to a simple weekly household budget item, as opposed to engaging in a larger discussion of energy policy or dealing with the reality of the oil market.
Talk of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve being tapped due to the current political shockwaves in North Africa and the Middle East are premature at best -- and, at worst, an embarrassment for politicians, or anyone, to endorse as economic necessity right now and a willful neglect of the real issue: the need for new U.S. energy policy.
Read my lips: there is no current shortage of oil. Actually, don't read my lips. Read the latest Department of Energy Data, released on Wednesday, which showed an increase in the stockpiles of West Texas Intermediate crude in Cushing, Okla.
If you don't read lips or trust the government data, ask the markets. t
"Inventory levels are at multi-year highs and don't support the use of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve," noted Phil Weiss, energy analyst at Argus Research.
Indeed, there is no sign yet of demand destruction as a consequence of higher oil prices, either. The latest DoE data also showed a continued decline in gasoline and heating oil inventory even after the recent surge in oil prices.
"We are not short oil. Wherever you look, the country is at healthy levels of petroleum products. There is no physical problem," said Roger Read, energy analyst at Morgan Keegan. The energy analyst summed up the sagacity of politicians seeking to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve this way: "Politicians want to be seen as doing something. If a constituent is complaining about $3.50 or $4 gasoline, what do you say? 'Release the SPR!' we say, and that will fix it. Most people just want simple answers."
I've got a simple answer. Let's just divvy up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve right now, divide whatever is in there by the number of cars on the roads in the U.S. and send out baggies of oil to individuals. It'll be even better than the recent recession-era consumer stimulus tax rebate checks (though delivering all that oil around the country might itself pose an energy use problem). Conversely, we could just take one of those dammed canyons out West and fill it up with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and let Americans boat on it and bathe in it -- so, at least, if energy policy isn't solved, we can drink from the cup of plenty and live the life of leisure to which we've become accustomed.