Kick OPEC While It’s Down!

A dispatch from the other war

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ president, Chakib Khelil, owns a house in the pricey Washington, D.C., suburb of Potomac, Md., and his wife and two sons are American citizens. This information comes via a Nov. 18 beat-sweetener in the New York Times (“A life that has coursed through so many different cultures appears to have given Mr. Khelil, 62, a flair for compromise and diplomacy”). Khelil himself lives in Algeria, where he is the oil minister, but apparently the Potomac house is the only dwelling he owns. Why is Chatterbox going on about this? Because a federal price-fixing lawsuit against OPEC, brought by Birmingham, Ala., gas station owners Carl and Debbie Prewitt, will turn largely on the question of whether the U.S. courts have jurisdiction over the Vienna-based cartel. (It’s an open and shut case that, if the U.S. does have jurisdiction over OPEC, then OPEC’s very existence violates the Sherman and Clayton antitrust acts.) Having a president who resides in Potomac, Md., might weaken OPEC’s argument that OPEC lies beyond the reach of U.S law.

That would be good news for the economic war that America is (or should be) fighting against the return of high energy prices as crude oil drops below $20 per barrel. Even President George W. Bush, whose loyalty to the oil industry usually trumps his loyalty to consumers, seems to be on board, at least for the moment. Maybe the lousy state of the economy now spooks him. Or maybe he’s fallen under the influence of his new friend Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is resisting pressure from OPEC to cut oil production drastically. (Today, Norway caved. You know the Cold War is over when Norway is our enemy and Russia is our friend.) Or maybe he’s figured out that keeping Saudi Arabia stable, though a priority for the duration of the Afghanistan war, will seem a lot less important once Al-Qaida is crushed; either the war will be over or it will continue in places (like Sudan and Iraq) where the Saudis probably won’t agree to be our allies anyway. Or maybe he’s noticed there’s a growing suspicion that Saudi Arabia’s present regime is corrupt and addled beyond hope, which would make it pointless to try to prop it up.

In the war against Osama Bin Laden, there isn’t much ordinary citizens can do beyond hanging a flag and spending money on consumer goods. But in the war against OPEC, there’s lots that the public can do. It can keep demand for oil low by buying more fuel-efficient cars, and it can urge members of Congress to raise federally mandated fuel-efficiency standards, which are abysmally low. (Applying the standards to SUVs, as Paul Krugman and others suggest, would be an especially good idea.) It can reconsider its long-standing opposition to energy taxes such as the Clinton administration’s failed BTU tax, which was (and remains) a good idea. It can ride city buses and subways. Even though people continue to make fun of Jimmy Carter for saying so, it can put on a sweater before turning up the thermostat. And it can ask the New York Times to stop sucking up to OPEC’s president and start covering Prewitt v. OPEC.