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America, get real about the high cost of cheap gas

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson says strength of U.S. depends on leaders who can see future needs
  • He says Americans want lower gas prices, so Obama, thinking of 2012, says drill and lease
  • Obama knows better; hard to persuade Americans when GOP trashes alternatives, he says
  • Granderson: U.S. needs to help Americans get reality; forget gas prices, find energy future

Editor's note: LZ Granderson writes a weekly column for CNN.com. A senior writer and columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com, he has contributed to ESPN's "Sports Center," "Outside the Lines" and "First Take." He is a 2010 nominee and the 2009 winner of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award for online journalism and a 2010 and 2008 honoree of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association for column writing.

(CNN) -- There is a Greek proverb I wish every elected federal and state official would recite before starting any talks about our energy policies and challenges: "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."

In other words, the strength of our nation is dependent upon leaders who are able to see beyond the country's immediate needs.

Right now, we need lower gas prices.

And unfortunately, that's all our leaders choose to see.

That and the 2012 presidential election.

On Saturday, President Barack Obama vowed to expand drilling in Alaska, explore new oil sources off the Atlantic coast and extend leases for Gulf Coast states hit with a temporary moratorium on drilling after last year's BP spill. He also promised to hold more lease sales in Alaska -- a measure for which oil execs and Alaska pols have been lobbying for years.

All of this was in response to growing criticism from voters and Republicans over rising gas prices -- though by Obama's own admission, these new promises won't bring immediate relief at the pumps. They will, however, allow him to deflect criticism that his administration hasn't done anything about the cost of gas -- should that become a focus of his eventual GOP challenger.

It's already started. Sarah Palin dubbed him "The $4 per gallon president." Michele Bachmann began her Conservative Principles PAC Conference speech noting that gas was $1.83 the day before Obama took office. Newt Gingrich told the crowd at the Conservative Action Conference that "what you have from the Obama Administration is a war against American energy."

It's the nature of politics, of course, and while "2008 Obama" vowed to keep above the fray, "2011 Obama" knows he has to play to stay in the game.

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What gets lost in all of this is the reason why the president was so resistant to authorizing more drilling in the first place: the United States does not need to become less dependent on foreign oil, the United States needs to become less dependent on oil. Obama's not the first president to approach this subject, and sadly after his reversal on Saturday, he obviously won't be the last.

Sure, in the short-term lowering prices at the pump is a good thing for people, but at what point do we stop looking at the Earth's resources as limitless? Politicians are squabbling over moving the debt ceiling, but when will they speak of a consumption ceiling, particularly with energy?

I keep waiting for Obama to have an "ask not what your country can do for you" moment with regards to energy, but it hasn't happened.

The last president to seriously ask Americans to use less energy was President Jimmy Carter in his "A Crisis of Confidence" speech given July 15, 1979. While it was somewhat well-received as the time --people vowing to ride bikes to work and that sort of thing -- it is now widely panned as the "Malaise Speech," one of the many PR missteps that helped usher Carter out the White House door.

But I recently reread his call for less greed, and I can't help but wonder what our energy usage would look like if we had listened to him.

I'm not saying his policies were above reproach, but certainly he was on to something when he said: "It's clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper -- deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession. ... We've always believed in something called progress. We've always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own. Our people are losing that faith ..."

I wish Obama could make that speech, but just as we didn't really want to hear the truth then, we don't really want it now. Instead of applauding when there's a groundbreaking for factories manufacturing advanced car batteries and celebrating the promises of new jobs, his political opponents have chided the administration's $2.4 billion investment in electric-car development because critics say that technology is not necessary.

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How Democrats continue to get taken hostage by GOP hypocrisy is beyond me.

Sen. John Kerry's Purple Heart was called into questioned by a couple of draft dodgers, President Bill Clinton's morality is questioned by men having affairs and here Obama is being derided as the Grinch who Stole Clean Energy by Republican members of Congress, who over the past four elections have received three times the amount of campaign dollars from the oil industry as Democrats.

Earlier this month on CNN's State of the Union Video, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, in talking about soaring gas prices, accused the Obama administration of hindering the development of new energy sources and said that we need to be "more American energy dependent as opposed to foreign energy dependent. ... We should be exploring for energy offshore, on federal land and in Alaska," he said.

Barrasso, and other GOP mouthpieces, have been brilliant these days with this messaging sleight of hand -- pushing a big oil agenda under the guise of new energy exploration as if it were Ronald Reagan and not Carter who had gotten the solar panels installed on the White House.

Now, granted the panels were not fiscally efficient and they did end up putting a hole in the roof. But this was in Atari 2600 days with cumbersome game cartridges. Thirty years later, we download video games wirelessly on our smart phones -- and yet solar, wind and alternate fuel technology remain archaic by comparison.

Why?

Is it really possible that the nation that turned auto factories into aircraft plants in a matter of days during WWII can't figure out a cleaner, more environmentally friendly way to meet our energy demands over the course of three decades? Or is it that we're encouraged to maintain the status quo by the policies of Republicans with pockets lined with oil money and the cowardice of Democrats too afraid to repeat Carter's "mistake"?

I'm not happy that it takes $80 to fill up my four-door Jeep Wrangler.

But instead of wondering "why are gas prices so high?" I'm trying to figure out "who killed the electric car?"

We should be much further along in developing energy alternatives than where we are now. But because of politics, we continue to move the line in the sand, like the president did this weekend.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

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