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Obama Greenlights Offshore Drilling, but Does it Go Far Enough?

The Obama administration opened up some of the nation’s shores to offshore drilling on Wednesday, a move that seemed more political than practical. Ironically, environmentalists and conservatives inadvertently found common ground when criticizing the plan: it won’t do all that much to create true energy independence. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell praised the move, but qualified his support by noting that it was “a small one that leaves enormous amounts of American energy off limits.” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune felt much the same way, for different reasons of course, saying that “drilling our coasts will [do] nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence.”

Obama opened up offshore drilling along much of the Atlantic coast and in the Cook Inlet in Alaska. The drilling ban remains in place along the Pacific coast and most of Alaska, while more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico remains under study. Accordingly, this is merely a partial measure, as both McConnell and Brune imply. But, Brune’s assertion that more drilling will do nothing to lower gas prices is likely incorrect. Gas and oil prices depend in large part on the futures market and the prospect of more supply down the road, even a little more, will help to depress futures prices. Back in 2008, when gasoline prices were over four dollars per gallon, president Bush moved to open up offshore drilling. That announcement had the desired effect. Gasoline prices dropped, not because there was an immediate increase in supply, but because the market responded to the prospect of increased supplies down the road.

It’s worth remembering how the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi responded when Bush pushed for more offshore drilling in 2008:

“The president has failed in his economic policy, and now he wants to say, ‘but for drilling in protected areas offshore, our economy would be thriving and the price of gas would be lower.’ That hoax is unworthy of the serious debate we must have to relieve the pain of consumers at the pump and to promote energy independence.”

Did Speaker Pelosi complain about Obama’s drilling initiative in similar terms, or at all? You don’t need Google to answer that question. Yet, the last sentence in Pelosi’s 2008 attack still largely applies, for if Obama’s plan isn’t actually a hoax, it doesn’t go nearly far enough towards fulfilling the worthy goal of energy independence. This move feels like a bargaining chip, but – having already flipped it onto the table – it’s hard to see how this ploy will help the administration. Ideally, Obama would like to pass a comprehensive energy bill that includes cap and trade, or some other form of greenhouse gas reduction measures. Now that he has “given in” on offshore drilling, does the president expect Republican support for an energy bill in return? That seems an unlikely scenario, given how unpopular greenhouse gas reduction measures are among the public and the GOP.

Environmental groups are upset with the president over his latest move, but their anger will pass, especially with new motor vehicle fleet fuel efficiency standards going into effect and as Obama pushes cap and trade back into the spotlight. Both moves will go a long way to soothing hurt feelings. Still, it was amusing to hear the rhetoric from the environmental crowd after the president relaxed the offshore drilling ban. “Short of sending Sarah Palin back to Alaska to personally club polar bears to death, the Obama administration could not have come up with a more efficient extinction plan for the polar bear,” Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity complained.

The Christian Science Monitor had to reach back more than forty years to find an environmental incident it could use to smear offshore drilling: “In 1969, off Santa Barbara, Calif., 3 million gallons of crude oil bubbled up from the seabed after a blowout on an oil-drilling platform,” the Monitor said in an April 1 editorial. The fact that they had to dig that deeply in the archives to find a significant incident is a testament to how much drilling technology has evolved. In fact, some scientific data indicates that not drilling hurts the environment more than doing so. A 1999 study by the University of California, Santa Barbara concluded that offshore drilling reduces oil seepage on the ocean floor, by reducing pressure on undersea petroleum reservoirs.

If the president wants to increase domestic energy production with more than just a token gesture, there’s a number of substantive moves that he could make, but the sorts of policies that would markedly boost homegrown energy in the long run are precisely the sorts of policies that would send the green faction of his base screaming over the edge of sanity in righteous horror and indignation, rather than seeing them merely grumble about a relatively minor change in policy that will be forgotten in a week or two.

If Obama really wanted to boost domestic energy production and give the economy a shot in the arm, opening up ANWR would be a nice start. Tapping the vast petroleum reserves locked away under federal lands in the west would be another fine move, as would drilling along the Pacific coast, the Gulf of Mexico and further into Alaskan enclaves. We all know that none of this is going to happen. Still, if the president isn’t going to go “all in” as far as domestic gas and oil production is concerned, I suppose we must be grateful that he tossed a chip into the pot, even if it’s one that is relatively unimportant to him.


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