Touring America’s oil rigs and nuclear plants, John McCain sometimes sounds as if he’ll produce enough wind to power the nation all by himself. So strongly does his current rhetoric smell of methane — the gas emanating from manure — that he might even qualify for an alternative energy tax incentive.

The former straight talker, who once could not help but tell the truth, has found the voice of the demagogue within. As McCain seeks to exploit public anger over the price of gasoline, first with his dubious “gas tax holiday” and now with his campaign for offshore oil drilling, the thoughtful legislator who defied his own party on global warming and Alaskan oil leasing has been replaced by that much more familiar congressional figure — a rented mouthpiece for the energy industry.

Not surprisingly, this new McCain is not quite as accessible to the press as the earlier version, partly because he resents the media attention devoted to his Democratic opponent and partly because he no longer is so eager to answer every question a reporter might pose. He prefers to listen to the cheers of eager boobs who believe him when he says, “We’re not going to pay $4 a gallon for gas because we are going to drill here, and we are going to drill now!”

But should he ever stop yelling and start thinking again, there will be plenty of questions awaiting him, including these:

Senator, if you truly think we should be doing “all of the above” to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, why have you voted against every recent congressional measure to encourage renewable energy sources?

If you still worry about the effects of climate change, then why do you now emphasize drilling for additional oil offshore rather than energy sources that don’t create greenhouse gases? And why do you continue to talk about “clean coal,” which doesn’t actually exist?

Why do you say that offshore drilling will cut gasoline prices when the Energy Information Administration predicts that will not happen for a decade and will make little difference even then?

According to your best estimate, when will “drilling here and drilling now” reduce the price of gasoline in the United States? Please explain why you no longer believe in the data supplied by the Energy Information Administration, which you asked to provide the economic analysis for the climate-change bill that you co-sponsored with Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

When you assure audiences that drilling offshore will produce more oil within a matter of months, as you did in Bakersfield, Calif., last week, are you relying on sources other than the Energy Information Administration? Please identify the person or persons who told you that the oil industry can produce more petroleum within the next several months if we start offshore leasing today. Did you learn of that miraculous capacity from one of the many oil company lobbyists who have advised and raised money for your campaign?

When you said that there was no significant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico even during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, were you aware that at least 7 million gallons were spilled as a result of Katrina? How much oil must leak from a damaged offshore rig or barge before you would consider the spillage to be “significant”?

By the way, where will all that new offshore drilling occur if the states of Florida and California continue to oppose offshore leasing, as their governors have vowed to do? Do you still support the right of those states to prevent drilling in their coastal waters, as you promised last year? Doesn’t that promise conflict with your claim that offshore wells will produce enough new oil to lower gasoline prices?

Finally, what is so funny about checking tire pressure to save energy? Are you aware that auto and tire maintenance — like other conservation and efficiency measure — can save far more oil than offshore leasing will ever produce? Did you know that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has urged the people of California to pump up their tires? Is it really prudent to mock him?

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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