06/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Unbearable Arrogance of Oil

The past week has been a spectacular testament to the iron grip that Big Oil has on American politics. First, they trotted out their handmaiden, the vice-president, to speak to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Cheney proceeded to lie through his teeth -- getting caught, as has become his trademark, only for the little one. The media jumped all over Cheney for claiming that it was outrageous that U.S. oil companies could not drill for oil off Florida when the dreaded Cubans already had the even more dreaded Chinese drilling just 60 miles away.

"Oil is being drilled right now 60 miles off the coast of Florida," the vice-president said. "We're not doing it, the Chinese are, in cooperation with the Cuban government. Even the communists have figured out that a good answer to high prices is more supply."  It turned out, of course, not to be true.

In a spectacular example of why this administration thinks lying is just fine, Cheney claimed as his source not a journalist, but columnist George Will, whose editors regularly explain that as a columnist he has no obligation to check his facts. Immediately the conservative email lines were hot with the Cuban/Chinese connection.

But while the media nailed this lie, they missed the whopper. As the Washington Post reported:

"Vice President Cheney yesterday called for a substantial increase in domestic drilling for oil and other natural resources, including in environmentally sensitive areas, saying that only increased production -- and not new technology -- will satisfy the nation's demand for energy."

Cheney's logic gave him away, though. He claimed that while we could, "over time" kick what his boss, the President, has called our "addiction to oil," drilling would work sooner and faster. Well, I'm sure Cheney  knows the actual numbers. The auto industry can change the relative production emphasis it places on different models within six weeks. It can deliver a new model to the showroom in three years. But if Congress ever authorized leasing in the Arctic, as Cheney wants, it would be a decade before any oil flowed. So new technology (in the form of more-efficient vehicles) could be in place in six weeks to three years -- whereas oil flowing from new oil fields would take at least a decade.

And Cheney's speech was odd. Why was the Bush administration looping back to its old, and often rejected, demand for more drilling, in the Arctic and off our beaches? Was this simply lame-duck autopilot?

Who was the audience?

It turns out to have been a very small, very elite, and very attentive audience. The day after Cheney trotted out "drill everywhere," Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard that John McCain's key to redemption with his party's leadership was "drill everywhere." Headlined "There's Votes in Them Thar Hills," Barnes' article warned McCain that his well-established, "let the states decide" position on drilling off the coasts was a non-starter with the Bush wing of the party:

"A federalist on what he regards as a grave national security threat? That's an odd stance. It seems more like a dodge -- a very un-McCain-like tactic -- than a logical position.... Republicans believe "drilling" -- the one-word capsulation of the issue -- is their strongest political talking point in 2008. Indeed, it may be their only good domestic issue."

And Republicans, Barnes warned McCain, might forgive him for not joining in their cry to drill the Arctic refuge -- but only if he offered up Florida, California, North Carolina, Washington, and Oregon as a trade.

The combination to the lockbox that is John McCain's straight-shooting heart turns out to read "Cheney + Weekly Standard." Today in Houston, the nation's oil capital, Cheney capitulated and announced that he supported eliminating the moratorium on drilling off the coast. His press advisory yesterday said "I'll call for lifting federal moratorium on states for off-shore oil exploration. This is a short-term measure toward the long-term goal of reducing dependence on foreign oil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions." Let's parse that sentence -- by allowing more drilling for oil, McCain is reducing greenhouse gases?

This is a very sad moment. The oil industry has demonstrated that their reach and power enable them, with just the slightest flick of a finger, to take a presidential candidate whose reason for being was independent, and turn him into a lapdog.