Why Michele Bachmann’s $2-a-Gallon Gas Promise Is a Fantasy

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Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (Photo: Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call Group)

Since virtually the entire field of Republican presidential candidates has decided to abandon science — with the exception of Jon Huntsman, whose negligible support has to be measured with an electron microscope — I could easily spend the next 15 months shooting down every false statement they make about climate change, energy policy or evolution. I’ll pass, though — Climate Progress has that thankless job pretty much covered. One of the reasons I eventually migrated into science and environment writing — after an early career profiling Filipino boxers — is that I find politics and political reporting utterly maddening. So I’ll mostly remain a spectator.

But on Wednesday Michele Bachmann said something that’s just very, very wrong. Which isn’t unusual in and of itself but is something that needs to be debunked. At a campaign stop in South Carolina, the Minnesota Representative took on the high price of gasoline:

The day that the President became President, gasoline was $1.79 a gallon. Look at what it is today. Under President Bachmann, you will see gasoline come down below $2 a gallon again. That will happen.

(PHOTOS: Gas Stations Through the Years)

So Bachmann has promised to bring gasoline below $2 a gallon — a 56% decrease from the current average price of $3.58 a gallon.

Now, there are a few things wrong with this. For one, the $1.79-a-gallon figure that Bachmann cites is from December 2008, before Barack Obama actually took office. (When Obama was inaugurated, gas cost $1.81 — not a big difference, I know, but how hard would it have been to get the right figure? The data are right here.) More important, though, is the reason that gas was — comparatively speaking — so cheap a few years ago. It wasn’t because the U.S. was suddenly pumping more oil, or because the Saudis had decided to flood the market, or because the head of ExxonMobil lost his mind and started to give all Americans a 2-for-1 deal on gas. The U.S. — and the world — was in the depths of the worst recession since the 1930s, depressing demand for everything from data centers to electricity to driving. It’s Econ 101: precipitous falls in demand usually trigger precipitous falls in price, which is what happened to gas prices, dropping from a high of $4.05 a gallon in mid-July 2008 to a low of $1.69 a gallon at the end of December that year. If you see sub-$2-a-gallon gas again, I strongly suggest that you stock up on bottled water and canned tuna, because the economic end times may be at hand.

(PHOTOS: Michele Bachmann’s Life On and Off the Campaign Trail)

Of course, the other way to cut prices is to increase supply, and Bachmann and other politicians argue that we could do so by opening up more territory for oil exploration in the U.S. — a policy known in 2008 as “Drill, baby, drill.” She’s right — up to a very, very, very small point. For one, the U.S. under Obama is already producing more oil than it did before he took office. Thanks in part to new shale oil deposits, the U.S. produces a million and a half barrels of oil more today than it did in 2005 — yet during that same time period, gas has gone from about $2 a gallon to $3.50, with large spikes in between. And even if we opened up everything to drilling, it wouldn’t make much difference at the pump. A 2009 study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that opening up drilling areas off the East Coast, West Coast and the western coast of Florida would yield 500,000 extra barrels of oil a day by 2030. That might sound like a lot — except the world consumes 89 million barrels of oil a day, and by then will almost surely be using much more. Five hundred thousand barrels is a drop in your gas tank. Assuming OPEC simply reduced its own production to account for increased American drilling — which it would — prices at the pump might drop a whole 3 cents a gallon.

Look, there are good economic arguments for increasing oil exploration at the U.S. that have nothing to do with gas prices. Every barrel of oil we can produce at home rather than importing reduces our trade deficit and supports valuable domestic jobs. (You may hate them, but the oil and gas industry provides some of the best-paying jobs in the country for those without a college degree.) But the oil market is a global one, and it will be rising demand from developing countries like China and India that will really change prices. The U.S. President, as the Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal writes, can’t control that. The only way we can try to reduce the price of gas effectively — or at least, shield Americans from the economic burden of high prices — is through more fuel-efficient cars, which would reduce demand. But Bachmann has opposed raising fuel-efficiency standards — and for that matter, energy-efficient lightbulbs. There’s nothing in her record or her statements to indicate that she would support the kind of policies that help break America’s dependency on expensive energy.

Unless, of course, a President Bachmann were to preside over disastrous economic policies that threw the world back into a deep recession, as an Economist writer speculates:

Ms Bachmann, meanwhile, was a strong opponent of an increase in the debt ceiling. Failure to raise the debt ceiling would have produced an immediate cut in government spending of 44%, leading to a larger output decline than was observed in 2008. Personally, I have total confidence that Ms Bachmann can bring back cheap petroleum, one way or another.

So maybe it’s not so impossible after all — as long as you’re willing to endure a little collateral damage.

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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