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The energy debate: Taylor pushes increased drilling, while Shuler looks to alternative fuels

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Prices at the gas pump began falling last month with the announcement that a new pocket of deep-sea oil had been found off the Gulf of Mexico. Locally, regular unleaded hit a mere $2.25 per gallon, or in some cases even less, such as in Maggie Valley where the new Quality Oil Co. station posted prices of $2.02.


Such price fluctuations runs all the way down the line, said Lloyd Martin of Freeman Gas in Murphy.

Propane is made from crude oil, representing approximately 1.7 gallons out of a 42-gallon barrel. Nearly half each barrel goes to gasoline production. Other refined products include diesel fuel, heating oil and jet fuel.

The cost of refined products such as propane goes up when the price of a barrel of oil goes up. Those prices fluctuate too much as the market reacts to the slightest bit of good or bad news, said Martin, who is looking for a little stablity.

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“They are going to have to work on the people that we import oil from and get the price down there,” he said.

Of course, it’s a simple case of supply and demand. With more than half of the U.S.’s petroleum coming from Africa, the Persian Gulf and other regions outside the Western Hemisphere, they’ve got it and we want it.

However, that may be changing. The hike in gas prices has, if nothing else, prompted more Americans to be thinking about their miles per gallon and looking toward conservation.

“What I’ve seen is a lot more sales in smaller cars,” said Mike Owens, master sales consultant at Franklin Ford.

Customers are pushing for vehicles that aren’t gas guzzlers. They may not be driving any less, but the cars they’re driving are increasingly more economical — more diesels and hybrids, fewer SUVs like the Ford Explorer or Lincoln Navigator.

“I’ve actually lost sales because of gas prices,” Owens said.

At Franklin Ford, the sale of smaller cars is outweighing larger fleet vehicles five to one, with the hybrid Ford Escape ($22,000 baseline cost) experiencing ever-increasing popularity.

“We can’t keep them on the lot,” Owens said. “Once they come in they sell.”

Though Martin and Owens’ industries represent different petroleum products, their interests are the same — alternative fuel sources.

“My personal opinion, I think we could explore our options in the flex fuels and the ethanols,” Owens said. “To me that would be the best way to do it.”

In addition, the U.S. should stop relying on foreign countries for its energy supply.

“We’ve got the technology now,” Owens said of alternative sources as opposed to continued drilling for oil.

Martin agreed.

“I think it needs to be a combination of both,” he said.

Finding alternatives will decrease the demand for foreign oil, in turn reducing the cost and making it more affordable for those who need to continue to use it.


Energy and the candidates

The call for finding alternatives is part of the platform of Congressional candidate Heath Shuler. In a short response to the question, “How do you feel about America’s current energy policy? Do you think drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a good idea?” Shuler said that America needs to look to the future for its energy directives.

“Additional drilling in ANWR or other places is not the answer. It is a short-term fix for the long-term problem of America’s energy crisis and dependence on foreign oil. The answer is a genuine, aggressive commitment to the promotion and the expansion of technology and alternative energy sources,” Shuler said.

While Shuler, D-Waynesville, is in support of alternatives, he fails to mention conservation. His answer indicates a search for an oil replacement, rather than a push to reduce the demand.

His opponent, eight-term incumbent Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, pushes conservation but also pushes for increased domestic drilling.

“While the previous Administration — joined by environmental extremists — refused to allow any increases in domestic energy production, we placed ourselves into the position of having to pay whatever price is demanded by OPEC’s greedy cartel,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s response indicates that Democratic President Bill Clinton’s decision not to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is to blame for the U.S. having to pay higher prices at the pump. Meanwhile, Internet bloggers have begun circulating the rumor that the recent discovery of deep-sea oil in the Gulf is all too well timed, and a move by the Republican-led government to win public favor just before election time.

Regardless, drilling in ANWR potentially would allow the U.S. to increase its independence, Taylor said.

“There is a general misconception that only harm can come from oil and gas exploration. I am confident that resource management and sound environmental stewardship can go hand-in-hand in the ANWR, and have supported legislation to allow such exploration there,” Taylor said. “I have similarly supported offshore energy exploration and production, but only when such activities take place beyond 100 miles of our nation’s coastal areas.”


Supply for the future

The problem with drilling — anywhere, be it domestically or in international waters — is that it’s still drilling and it’s still only one world that we all share, says Alan Begley of Smoky Mountain Biofuels, which produces biodiesel, a clean burning alternative fuel made from renewable resources.

“Drilling in the Arctic displays the short-term nature of our energy policy. The supply of crude oil that would come from the Arctic would not equate to the risk of destroying a pristine wildlife area,” Begley said. “Furthermore, drilling 100 miles offshore is little different than drilling 50 miles offshore, since the environmental risks are the same.”

Margaret Hartzell, field associate for Environment North Carolina, agreed.

“Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or off the coast of North Carolina, is no solution to our country’s energy problems. Whatever oil is discovered in the Arctic, for example, would take 10 years to reach the market and would reduce gas prices by less than a penny-and-a-half a gallon by 2025,” said Hartzell said. “By contrast, increasing miles per gallon standards to 40 miles per gallon — a feat that is well within the automakers’ power, we could already be reducing consumption by 500,000 barrels of oil a day in 2006 had the standards been implemented in 2002.”

Environment North Carolina has called on Taylor and Shuler to support the goals of a New Energy Future — to reduce oil consumption, increase renewables, save energy and invest in the energy saving and renewable technologies to make the future cleaner and more secure. The Raleigh-based citizen environmental advocacy organization is circulating a petition available online asking candidates statewide to endorse the plan.

“These policies would boost our economy and provide a cleaner more sustainable foundation on which to build America’s economy for the 21st century. But we need leaders with the political will to make it a reality,” Hartzell said. “That is why Environment North Carolina is calling on Rep. Charles Taylor and Heath Shuler as well as all state and congressional candidates to put our national security, our environment, our global climate, and our children’s future above Big Oil and other powerful interests and join us in making the promise of a new energy future a reality.”

Taylor has criticized Shuler’s potential ability to ignore “Big Oil” interests.

“My opponent’s personal financial disclosure report shows that he owns up to $185,000 of oil and gas company stock – some in foreign oil corporations. Yet, he actually complains that ‘Big Oil’ has taken over Congress,” Taylor said. “It looks like the only person taken over by oil and gas companies is my opponent: when the families of WNC have to pay more and more at the pump, my opponent makes tens of thousands of dollars in profit. How could we trust him to work to lower gas prices when he’s actually making money off them?”

Local voters have fired back via letters to the editor, some saying that the stock holdings are such a marginal portion of the larger energy picture that they wouldn’t matter. Others question Taylor’s own finances.

“Politicians frequently have secret trusts. Would anyone be surprised if Rep. Charles Taylor has the same oil stocks he accuses Shuler of having?” read a letter from Joanna Michaels of Franklin, which was published last week in The Smoky Mountain News.

Regardless, those on the consumer end of the industry say it’s only a matter of time before fossil fuels run out and more must be done to find alternatives.

“The quicker we start on that the better of they’re going to be,” car salesman Owens said of future generations.

Bagley agreed.

“Our current leaders must recognize the finite nature of our petroleum energy supplies, and understand that it is a matter of when, not if, we change our policies,” he said.

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