According to a loosely-organized apocalyptic Christian movement, May 21, 2011 will be the "end of days." On or about that same date, the price of oil in the United States will begin to climb to $4 a gallon, according to two savants of the oil industry.
The former is highly unlikely but the latter is very probable.
The escalation in the price of oil is predicted by the legendary oil man T. Boone Pickens, known for his financial acuity as well as his oil expertise, and John Hofmeister, who retired as president of Shell Oil Company, to sound the alarm about the rate of U.S. consumption of oil.
In an interview with a trade publication, Hofmeister predicted that oil would rise to $4 a gallon this year and to $5 a gallon in the election year 2012. Separately, Pickens—who has been leaning on Congress to enact an energy policy that would switch large trucks and other commercial vehicles from imported oil to domestic natural gas—predicts that oil currently selling for just over $90 a barrel will go to $120 a barrel, with a concomitant price per gallon of $4 or more.
The Obama administration appears to have been slow to grasp the political implications of an escalation in the price of oil. When asked about it, outgoing White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs referred the questioner to the Department of Energy.
Not everyone is alarmed by the incipient rise in the oil price. Republicans, who are especially close to the oil industry and its Washington lobby, orchestrated by the American Petroleum Institute, think that a great deal of hay can be made while this particular sun shines. They plan to attack the administration for spending too many resources on alternative fuels, over-regulating the industry, and keeping too many federal lands away from oil prospecting. They also accuse the administration of being too frugal with its release of drilling areas in the Gulf of Mexico and on the two coasts, as well as Alaska.
The Republicans have unlikely bedfellows in their quest to politicize the price of oil. They are joined by environmentalists who have long believed that only high prices will break America's passion for the automobile.
Environmentalists have long advocated European-style taxation to drive motorists out of their cars and onto buses and trains.
A third interest group that will take some pleasure in rising oil prices are those who are invested in alternatives such as ethanol, oil from algae and electric vehicles.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund is keeping an eye on the price of oil, according to Caroline Atkinson, director of external relations at the IMF. She told a Washington press briefing that the IMF is particularly concerned with food and other commodities that are directly affected by the price of oil.
Hofmeister, who now heads the non-profit Citizens for Affordable Energy that advocates energy development in all forms, believes that the United States could increase oil production from the current 7 million barrels per day to 10 million, half of its consumption. He told an interviewer from Platt's, an energy publisher and broadcaster, that we were "essentially frittering at the edges of renewable energy, stifling production in hydrocarbon energy," which he said could lead to blackouts, brownouts, gas lines and rationing.
There are already signs that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is planning a big push for hydrocarbon energy. An indication of this comes from Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., a one-time global-warming believer who has dropped that issue from his agenda. He is the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In periods of high gasoline prices in the past, presidents have found there is very little that they can do. Their options are to reduce the tax on gasoline, sell oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or the Naval Petroleum Reserve. President George W. Bush went a step further: He went to Saudi Arabia twice to ask the Saudis to increase their rate of production. Twice he came back empty-handed.
All of this would be good news for the oil producers and especially those troublesome players, Russia and Venezuela.
Of course, if you believe the human endeavor ends on May 21, better fuel the SUV and hit the road.
By. Llewellyn King
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org