Soon $8-a-Gallon Gas?: Opinion

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Campaigning for office, President Obama promised to do something about high gas prices, but now he is denying he can do much about what Americans pay to drive. He is too modest!

In September 2008, Steven Chu said to The Wall Street Journal "Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe," and Barack Obama picked him for Secretary of Energy.

When President Obama was inaugurated, gas was selling for $1.90 a gallon, and it is now about $4.00. Not quite European levels, but doubling gas prices is a good start.

Mr. Obama says he needs four more years to change America. If he's re-elected, can we look forward to $8.00 a gallon?

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Don't laugh. Obama and Chu are good at the economically imprudent.

They share some rather radical notions that the nation has overinvested in oil and underinvested in solar, wind and other alternative energy sources.

The president has continued bans on drilling in the eastern half of the Gulf of Mexico, offshore on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and the richest fields in Alaska, and he has thrown onerous regulatory barriers to drilling where it is still legal.

Yet Obama boasts U.S. oil production is up.

Crude oil prices are now twice what they were in 2005, but domestic oil production has increased a paltry 12% and now stands at 5.8 million barrels a day.

John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil Company, estimates that opening up U.S. proven reserves could raise U.S. oil production to 10 million barrels a day while still adhering to prudent environmental safeguards.

U.S. oil prices do not move in lockstep with international prices, because refineries are built to handle the special characteristics of the oil produced by their primary sources of supply. Hence, oil sells for less in the U.S. than for example in Europe, and increasing U.S. production would lower refineries' acquisition costs and gas prices.

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Whatever Americans pay for gasoline, increasing domestic production to 10 million barrels a day would cut combined crude oil and gasoline imports in half, saving at least $150 billion a year.

That money would be spent in the U.S. on cement, steel, engineering services and the like, and boost GDP by $250 billion. It would create about 2.5 million jobs and lower unemployment to less than 7%.

Instead, the President says he needs to raise taxes on oil companies so that he can increase investments in solar and wind power. The basic supposition is the private sector, which already benefits from numerous tax breaks to develop and sell alternative technologies, has not exploited all commercially sound opportunities.

Yet, given billions to invest directly, the best Secretary Chu could do was plow money into Solyndra and about a dozen other projects independent Wall Street investment analysts advised would be "C"-rated if offered in the bond market.

A "C" rating is assigned to companies with a 70% chance of default.

Thanks to generous tax breaks, the private sector has already overinvested in solar, wind and other alternative energy resources, while it is barred from adequately investing in oil production -- even with tax breaks to Big Oil Mr. Obama loves to rail against.

As important, the recent problems of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan ( NSANY) Leaf indicate the difficulties of switching to wholly electric cars. More efficient internal combustion engines like those being rolled out by Ford Motor Co. ( FM) and Mazda, and hybrids, which also use gas but just more efficiently, are where drivers will be for a long time.

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For the present, the question is: Do Americans produce oil at home, where environmental risks can be effectively managed, or do they import oil from developing countries, where those risks may not be so effectively contained?

By choosing to keep and manage the risks at home, Americans can fire up growth and get unemployment closer to acceptable levels.

Professor Peter Morici, of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, is a recognized expert on economic policy and international economics. Prior to joining the university, he served as director of the Office of Economics at the U.S. International Trade Commission. He is the author of 18 books and monographs and has published widely in leading public policy and business journals, including the Harvard Business Review and Foreign Policy. Morici has lectured and offered executive programs at more than 100 institutions, including Columbia University, the Harvard Business School and Oxford University. His views are frequently featured on CNN, CBS, BBC, FOX, ABC, CNBC, NPR, NPB and national broadcast networks around the world.

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