Oil prices are very high and moving higher. In Asia and Europe there have been large protest actions, while the popular response in the US is still at the grumbling stage. This is likely to be an important issue in the US elections, and progressive candidates need clear, non-wonkish ways to frame and deal with the problem.
The strategy of choice right now seems to be “blame the speculators”, and Obama has jumped on this bandwagon. Not a good idea, in my opinion, for two reasons. First, there’s not much evidence that speculators are the cause of this price runup. Second, high oil prices—in fact, much higher oil prices—are good. They will combat climate change, slow down the environmental destruction of sensitive drilling areas and conserve a nonrenewable resource for future generations.
So what’s the alternative? The problem is not that oil is expensive, since burning it is truly costly for the human race, whether we pay the monetary price or not. The problem is that the money ends up in the hands of governments and oil companies that get rich simply because they’ve captured the resource. In economic terms, it’s the problem of rents: vast sums of money are being transferred from us, the consumers, to those who control a commodity in high demand but limited supply. And the solution is to get the money back. This is another reason why we need a cap-and-rebate plan for carbon. Put a tight cap on carbon fuels. Auction all the permits. Give the money back to the people. By drastically lowering demand we also put a lid on the price of oil at the wellhead. In other words, rather than paying lots of money to Exxon and the Saudi royal family, we pay it back to ourselves. Either way, oil will be expensive, because it has to be. But the solution is to get the money back, so we can protect our standard of living in other ways that won’t imperil the planet.