The announcement in mid-June that the Bush administration would ask Congress to lift the current restrictions on offshore oil drilling was yet another reminder of how out-of-touch this country’s leaders continue to be on energy policy.

Forget the fact that drilling wells on the Outer Continental Shelf won’t do a thing to lower gasoline prices this summer. Forget that drilling off this country’s coasts was largely shut down in the early 1980s because of the risks to the fishing industry. Forget that many coastal states such as Florida and California depend on their beaches to generate tourism, and that drilling rigs on the horizon might conflict with the image they seek to promote. Forget the very real risks posed by platforms and pipelines in at a time when evidence suggests that coastal storms are getting stronger and more dangerous.

Forget also that drilling for oil anywhere in the 21st century, after 100 years’ worth of exploration and exploitation has seriously depleted this non-renewable source of energy, amounts to a search for some of the last petroleum available on the planet. What’s left out there – on the Outer Continental Shelf, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in the Middle East, Brazil or anywhere – isn’t going to do a thing to put us on a sustainable path to the future. More drilling might buy a little time, but that’s about it.

So why does the Bush administration persist, when the evidence of such folly is so clear? The cynical political answer, of course, is that the administration and its supporters are only responding to the demands of Americans who claim a “right” to drive cars fueled with cheap gasoline, when and where they want to; a “right” to the convenience of a petroleum-fueled economy; a “right” to live in a manner that’s far more extravagant than anything Ancient Rome or pre-revolutionary France could ever have thought up. In addition, there’s the real political answer, also cynical-sounding: that the administration is responding to the needs of its big-oil supporters and other friends, the same group that has been determining U.S. energy policy for years. As long as gasoline and other fuels remained affordable, the policy worked, sort of – Americans got to drive, fly and fish as they wished; their profits weren’t going into the gas tank. Today that’s different – people are actually starting to change their energy habits in response to high fuel prices – but Big Oil’s perception of the world, including its habit of depending on friends in high places – hasn’t caught up.

Fortunately, a change in national habits is already underway. It’s palpable on islands like Vinalhaven, North Haven, Frenchboro and Swan’s, where electricity co-ops are moving ahead on ambitious wind-power developments. It’s just as real at car dealerships, where those selling hybrids and other fuel-efficient vehicles are moving their inventories while big cars and trucks sit on the lots. It’s real on wharves in Maine’s working harbors, where fishermen are focused on fuel efficiency to counteract sky-high prices, where the “carbon footprint” of a commodity like lobster is becoming an important bit of information. It’s real in the minds of ferry-riding island residents who have had to adjust to higher ticket prices; it’s real in the minds of homeowners who know they can blunt next winter’s oil-heat bills by adding insulation in their attics.

In sum, we have national leaders who are out of touch with what’s really happening out there; who still think we can produce our way out of our energy problems; who still don’t grasp that using limited resources more carefully and thoughtfully is the path to the future that makes the most sense.

They may not know it, but the time for thinking in a different way is really here.