Running On Empty Tour in G.I. By Amy Schweitzer amy.schweitzer@theindependent.

com Published: Friday, June 10, 2011 10:42 PM CDT Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, believes that gas prices are higher than they need to be because of President Obama's policies against drilling for oil in the United States. Phillips and supporters rallied in Stolley Park Thursday morning to talk about what they believe is keeping fuel prices high. "This is an education effort," he said of the Running On Empty Tour that started Wednesday in Omaha and continued to Topeka, Kan., Thursday night. "Gas prices don't have to be this high. They are driven artificially higher by some of the regulations and red tape that are coming out of the Obama administration." Photo: (Supporter Ted Stava (second from right) gets his sign in among the signs of protestors (from left) Dave Sprague, Marion Bahensky and Carole Denton on Thursday as Americans for Prosperity's "Running on Empty" tour against high gasoline prices stops at Stolley Park in Grand Island. (Independent/Barrett Stinson) Phillips specifically talked about the difficulty that companies are having in getting new drilling permits because of new regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency. He said these regulations have affected not just oil, but also coal and natural gas. Almost 50 people gathered in Grand Island to listen to Phillips and several local representatives Thursday. Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy, Third District Rep. Adrian Smith, Sen. Mike Gloor, Grand Island Mayor Jay Vavricek and others spoke at the rally. Sheehy urged the people of Nebraska to send a message to Washington that the nation needs a new energy bill. "It is affecting each and every one of us in so many different ways," he said, adding that Nebraska has been able to weather the recent recession because of a strong agriculture economy. "We know that when agriculture stays strong, main street stays strong. However, (farmers' and ranchers') input costs are rising significantly because the cost of their fuel to operate their machinery is rising." He said that will eventually translate into higher cost for the consumers of the food they produce.

Smith said that at first he hadn't considered Nebraska an energy-important state, but then he remembered all the coal that goes through the state via the railroad, which provides thousands of jobs. "There is more energy in Wyoming coal than there is in Persian Gulf oil," he said, adding that he is trying to change the energy bill in Washington, including adding hydropower to the definition of renewable energy. "Those are American sources of energy."

A group of about eight counterprotesters with signs against the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada and big oil companies disagreed with the Americans for Prosperity opinion on more drilling. "High gas prices are not the president's fault," said Mena Sprague of St. Paul. "We have high prices because of oil speculators." Carole Denton of Grand Island said she is not against all oil drilling on American soil and waters but thinks it should be done carefully and with a close watch on what it could do to the environment. "Yes, we need oil, but I don't like the political tactics of this group. I don't think we need to demonize people who are concerned about the environment," she said after the rally. "Let's be careful about how and where we drill." Phillips said spills, such as the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, are unfortunate but shouldn't stop oil production in the nation. "You can't stop energy production or you can't stop the space program or you can't stop food production because there are occasional setbacks," he said. "There are going to be setbacks in every endeavor known to man. You want to try to make them better, but you can't stop something, or totally freeze everything and say we aren't going to do it, just because of (a setback)." He said that if the space program was shut down permanently after a problem, there wouldn't have been the advances that there have been. Phillips did agreed that regulations against drilling aren't the only reason for increased fuel prices, but said he believes the regulations play a part. "They will say that the price increase is because of unrest in the Middle East, but there has been unrest in the Middle East for more than 40 years," he said. At the rally, Americans for Prosperity was urging people to "send their gas bill to Obama." "It's a tongue-in-cheek gesture. Symbolically, they can send their bill of how much extra it has cost them to fill up," Phillips said, adding the price of a gallon of gas has almost doubled since President Barack Obama took office. They were using the price comparison of $1.83 a gallon when Obama was inaugurated.

However, the counterprotest group noted that the average price of gas when George W. Bush was in office surpassed $4 a gallon. According to GasBuddy.com's charts of historical gas prices, the price dropped to $1.61 a gallon on Jan. 9, 2009 from a high of $4.12 a gallon in July 2008. Obama was elected in November 2008 and took office in January 2009. Phillips said he believes those protesting more oil drilling want to see the prices go up to more than $4 a gallon because it makes the alternative energy they are encouraging look better by comparison. "The only way that the ideologically pure choice of energy, whether it's electric or wind or solar, can compete is if gasoline is at $4 or $5 or $6 a gallon," he said, adding that currently those alternative energy sources need either government subsidies or create regulations against gasoline production. Several speakers, including Smith and Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln, said at the rally that they believe there is room for all types of energy. "We need an all-of-the-above approach to our energy policy," Smith said. Fulton, a former mechanical engineer who once designed a heat recovery steam generator, agreed, "It's not 'either/or' that will cause gas to go down. It is 'both/and.'" Phillips said Thursday's rally was mostly educational for Americans. "It is not urging people to go out and support or oppose any particular politician," he said.