My fellow Americans,
In the last year the price of energy, and especially gas at the pump, has gone way up. While it has come down a little in recent weeks, it is still much higher than before, and it is squeezing the budgets of families all across the country. This expense is all the more difficult to bear at a time when the economy is sputtering and paychecks are stagnating. People are looking for answers.
What I am going to say today will surprise you – but I will get to that later. First, I want to clear up the issue that everyone is talking about right now, offshore oil drilling. What’s my position on that?
If you listen to the energy experts, they all agree that drilling for more oil off our coasts will have little effect on the prices we pay for gasoline and other energy products. First, it will take many years before exploration uncovers productive oil fields, and more years to build the platforms and transportation systems to bring this oil to the market. So no matter what we do about this issue today, it will not have an effect on today’s prices. But the experts also say that the potential output of these fields, compared with global supply and demand, is simply not enough to move prices more than one or two percent. If we had another Saudi Arabia lying off our coast it would make a big difference, but we don’t. So, while I wish there were a simple decision we could take that would bring immediate and substantial relief to families struggling with energy costs, I don’t think offshore drilling is the answer.
But the issue won’t go away. This is an election year, and the polling companies are working overtime to tell us what the public thinks about every topic. And if we can believe their numbers, a large majority of Americans think that we should give offshore drilling a try anyway, on the principle that if you have a problem you should do everything you can.
We live in a democracy. If a substantial majority favors a policy, and if the policy does no harm, we should respect the will of the people. So, even though I’m not optimistic about what more drilling can do, I’m willing to reverse the ban we’ve had in recent decades.
Democrats in the House and Senate are preparing legislation along these lines. To keep to the requirement of “do no harm”, this legislation will see to it that any offshore oil production adheres to strict environmental standards, so that we don’t have oil spills fouling our beaches — the problem that led to the ban in the first place. We will also have controls on the ability of big oil companies to reap windfall profits from these finds: their oversized profits are part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution. Together, these stipulations will guarantee that a change in policy on offshore drilling, whatever its benefits, will not impose significant costs. If Republicans agree to a careful, responsible shift in regulation we can move forward quickly.
But as I said, whether we drill a little more or a little less will not have much impact on sky-high energy costs. If we are serious about addressing this issue, we must move beyond the debate over drilling and address the underlying causes. That is my real purpose today.
We should begin with a sobering fact: while energy prices will continue to fluctuate unpredictably, in the long run they are headed up, up, up. In part this is because the supply of scarce resources like petroleum is starting to reach its limit. Experts disagree about just when this peak supply will occur, but they agree that the day is not far off. In the meantime, the demand for oil and other energy products is rising quickly in countries like China and India. We are happy to see anyone anywhere move out of poverty and into a more comfortable lifestyle, but we should also recognize that this means they will be able to afford to buy more cars, heat their houses to a more comfortable temperature and in general use more energy. Between a plateau of supply and a rising curve of demand, we are facing a future of scarce and expensive energy.
But there is another side to energy prices. In previous speeches I have talked about the urgent necessity of weaning America from its dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. Avoiding conflict over oil supplies is central to our national security, whether it is about getting drawn into battles in oil-producing countries like Iraq and Iran, or finding a way to end warfare where oil fields and oil pipelines are at stake, as is now the case in the conflict between Russia and Georgia. The less reliant we are on these supplies, the more we can focus on the true threats to our security, like groups that would commit wanton acts of terror against our population. The fixation on oil is distorting our priorities and fomenting violence around the world.
Just as urgent is the demand to prevent catastrophic climate change. Already the concentration of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere is entering the danger zone, and every day our factories, power plants and automobiles are pushing that number up higher and higher. No one knows where the tipping point is, the level of greenhouse gases that can trigger a process of self-reinforcing climate change that we will be powerless to stop. We must drastically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, and quickly, if we are to keep faith with future generations that will inherit whatever world we leave them. And there is little we can do as a country that would more restore our standing in the world than to shoulder our share of the burden in preserving a liveable planet.
For all these reasons, we have to kick the fossil fuel habit. And this will mean higher prices, much higher than today. So, not only are we unable to repeal the law of supply and demand to bring down these costs, in fact we need higher prices to achieve our core national objectives. What then can we do?
Here is where I will ask you to think outside the box. What I will propose to you today is that the problem is not the price of oil and other energy products as such, but where the money goes. When you pay four dollars or more at the pump for a gallon of gas, your hard-earned money is on its way to a foreign country or a fabulously profitable oil company. It’s gone: you will never see it again.
But suppose we did something different. Instead of paying high prices to far-off governments or oil profiteers, suppose we paid it to ourselves, so that we could actually get it back. This is what I’m going to suggest.
The way to do this is by actually raising the price of oil. You could do it through a tax. The way I’ve proposed, in my climate change plan, is to have a limited number of permits for bringing fossil fuels into the economy, and to make energy companies pay for every one of these permits. Of course, they will pass this cost along to you, the consumer. This is how a market economy works. It will lead to innovation, as businesses and households find new ways to conserve energy. But the bottom-line result is that, to kick the fossil fuel habit, we will be paying a lot more for whatever we continue to use.
Yet here is the key point: the extra cost you will pay will not go to a foreign government or an oil company. It will come right back to you. Specifically, I am proposing to put all of these revenues from higher energy prices into a big pot, and then pay out the money in equal amounts to every American citizen. This is the simplest and fairest solution. I want to be very clear: this money will not be kept by the government. It is yours. I promise, here and before all of you, that at least 95 cents of every dollar collected in selling fossil fuel permits will be given back to the people, quickly, efficiently, fairly. Economists who have studied this idea estimate that the amount each of us would receive would be something like $1000 per year. Any additional public programs for energy research or conservation would be financed out of tax revenues as they are, or more accurately as they should be, today. The extra money you pay for energy would be earmarked, virtually all of it, to return to you.
This plan has many benefits. It will do more for our national security than any other single step we can take. It will restore America’s leadership role in the fight against climate change. It will be an added benefit for the most vulnerable Americans, those who are at the bottom of the economic ladder and use the least energy already: they will get back much more than they pay. But what I want to emphasize is that this is the only meaningful long run solution to the problem of runaway energy costs. Energy costs will rise, and in some respects we even need them to rise. But the problem is that, under the current system, every dollar we pay for energy is a dollar lost. The solution is to change the system so that we get this money back, literally, every one of us. It is the responsibility of government to set up this system and then get out of the way, so that the money can return to the public in the simplest, fairest and most direct manner. On the international front, if we can convince enough other countries to take a similar stand, and I think we can, the overall effect will be to bring down global demand substantially, so that much less of our energy bill ends up in foreign or corporate hands.
Unlike offshore drilling, the proposal I’ve just outlined is not in the news. The pollsters aren’t asking you what your position is on it. But, also unlike offshore drilling, it gets to the heart of the problem. We can’t legislate energy prices down and we shouldn’t try. But we can protect the budgets of our families and our economic health as a nation by turning Americans into recipients of energy money as well as payers of it. So this is my answer to out-of-control energy costs: let’s get this money back. Let’s take control of our energy problems and protect our standard of living at the same time. Let’s have a future in which, when you read headlines about higher energy prices you think, “That’s more money in the bank, for me.” Let’s get the energy money back.