The U.S. oil and gas industry wants marijuana to be legal. That’s how it looks to me.

The CEOs of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and other oil companies haven't swapped their business suits for tie-dyed outfits and jewelry shaped like reefer leaves.

But the industry's support for legalizing pot seems clear from the pattern of its political stances in the arguments over the energy crisis. Everyone knows the range of solutions that could be applied. The arguments boil down to what role the federal government should play.

Those who want government action call for higher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and a much higher excise tax on gasoline, to encourage conservation of fossil fuels. The government could also be more assertive with tax incentives to develop alternatives such as solar and wind power, more efficient appliances and buildings and mass transportation.

The oil and gas companies, their industry groups and think tanks, take the opposite stance. They insist that government regulations only interfere with satisfying good old consumer demand. Their mantra? If Americans want to keep on burning huge amounts of oil and gas, let the free market handle it — no matter what the consequences.

Consumers rule? OK. More than 14 million Americans have smoked pot in the past month, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly 100 million have tried it sometime in their lives, and no doubt most "sometimers" think it's nothing the government should stick its nose into.

The pro-pot sentiment is clear in the 12 states where voters have approved medical marijuana initiatives since 1996. Those popular laws, passed mostly in Western states, allow doctors to prescribe pot with a fair degree of leeway. Eleven states, including some without the medical provision, have effectively decriminalized marijuana for all adult consumers, treating them no more seriously than drivers who commit minor traffic violations. Voters in some cities, such as Denver, have gone so far as to eliminate all penalties for adults who possess small amounts.

The federal government stubbornly keeps on pursuing pot consumers everywhere, even though studies show marijuana is a lighter drug than alcohol. Pot smoking does not seem to lead to the use of heavier drugs, and does not cause crime waves. According to pot consumer Web sites, luminaries in both political parties admit they've smoked the herb, from Bill Clinton and Al Gore to Newt Gingrich and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with movie stars, musicians, and bestselling authors such as Stephen King. King says, "Marijuana should not only be legal, I think it should be a cottage industry."

Meanwhile, the country's "addiction" to oil and gas, as recovering oilman George W. Bush described it in his State of the Union speech, has far more negatives. Unlike the oil and gas industry, potheads don't want to abolish environmental protections so that drilling rigs can invade the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and wild lands in the Rocky Mountains. They don't want to build new port facilities to receive shiploads of explosive liquefied natural gas, which would ramp up power plants to heat and cool the epidemic of trophy homes. They're not sending the Montana National Guard to Iraq to secure their supply lines. All they want is a simple grower's light and a closet, or a few square feet of garden.

On the crucial issue of global warming, all the pot-puffers' smoke adds up to a tiny fraction of the tailpipe emissions from 24 million gas-guzzling SUVs, not to mention all the inefficient pickup trucks, diesel semis, snowmobiles and ATVs. And in a directly lethal comparison, 40,000 Americans die each year in wrecks of oil-propelled vehicles; it's difficult to find evidence of a single death due to smoking pot.

Over and over, the oil and gas industry says that whatever consumers want, they should get. They want the federal government to stay out of that equation. If the industry applied its might and reasoning to the government's denial of pot smokers, it would tip the scales of justice and settle that issue once and for all. The question should be posed to the CEOs and their followers: If they don't support legalizing marijuana, aren’t they merely self-serving — thinking of their corporate profits — in their stance on the energy issue?

Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the paper’s editor in the field, based in Bozeman, Montana.