Drill, ‘Bama, drill?

Despite Obama’s campaign promise to keep the moratorium on offshore drilling, he has recently proposed to allow drilling along the Atlantic coast, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska.

In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama critiqued McCain’s proposal to increase offshore drilling as a policy that would “have long term consequences for our coastlines but no short term benefits since it would take at least 10 years to get any oil.” He further stated that the proposal would “only worsen our addiction to oil and put off needed investments in clean, renewable energy.”

So why, after gaining a major victory on health care, would President Obama renege on his campaign promise in an apparent attempt to compromise with the Republican ‘Party of No’ that did its best to derail health care? Has Obama suddenly been persuaded by Newt Gingrich’s calls to “drill, baby, drill?”

I interned in the White House Office of Political Affairs last summer; these are not stupid people. If the White House has decided to  make a move that will obviously infuriate much of its Democratic base, there has to be a politically strategic reason behind it.

Although it all but disappeared during the endless health care debate, comprehensive energy and climate legislation has already passed the House and is predicted to soon be introduced into the Senate. According to E&E News, Senate staff are busy writing the legislative text of the bill that Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are expected to release during the week of April 19 to 23.

At the same time, a bipartisan counter proposal by our own Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) has proposed to give consumers some of the money raised from pricing carbon. Politico lauded this as “a critical improvement in Washington’s thinking about climate change policy “because using cap and trade policy as a deficit-reduction tool has not been making it popular during this recession.

Given the recent reemergence of energy and climate legislation, Obama’s all too timely announcement to expand offshore drilling is clearly a calculated and political decision by the White House to help win political support for action on climate change. But is it working?

The Washington Post reported that a string of senators, including Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and James Webb (DA-Va.), have praised the strategy. Many of them expressed their support for Obama’s new approach to energy, given that he has recently offered support for more nuclear production.

They have urged the administration to use a climate bill to help boost domestic energy production, through expansion of oil and gas drilling and nuclear power. Furthermore, Begich and Gregg said Wednesday’s announcement made them more optimistic about a deal on the bill than they have been in months.

Noting that Obama has also offered recent support for more nuclear production, Gregg said such moves show that the administration is “genuinely trying to approach the energy production issue in a multifaceted way and a realistic way, rather than listening to people on their left.”

But many liberals have criticized this new approach, saying that Obama is essentially giving away conservative priorities of nuclear and offshore drilling when he should be using it as a bargaining chip. As health care and stimulus reform have shown, preemptively compromising is not a savvy negotiating strategy.

At the same time, Republicans have  criticized the decision, calling it halfhearted, and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the administration didn’t go far enough.

Clearly the announcement has angered both liberals and conservatives, which may be a sign that Obama is doing something right.

Politics aside, what is more offshore drilling going to do to reduce gas prices, improve our our national security and keep our oceans safe?

America has only two percent of world oil reserves but we consume over 20 percent of the world’s oil. According the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there likely won’t be any oil from these new offshore areas until 2017 and even when full production ramps up, it will only produce 1/1,000 of total global supply. Such a minute figure will do little to make America less dependent on foreign oil and the Energy Information Administration has said that impact on oil prices will be “insignificant.”

The environmental problem is a little trickier. Obama has been careful to keep the oil-rich areas offshore of California and Alaska off-limits, thereby protecting some pristine areas and offering an olive branch to liberals. At the same time, oil spills have greatly decreased over the past decade and the majority of petroleum that enters ocean waters comes from land-based activities such as runoff or airplanes. Less than eight percent of the 29 million gallons of petroleum that enter North American ocean waters each year come from tanker or pipeline spills. Since American offshore drilling operations are subject to much higher regulations than those of many countries, it is arguably better that America drill its own coastlines as opposed to drilling coastlines all over the world.

In essence, Obama’s plan to expand offshore drilling was a political move with little benefit to American oil consumers or our national security. While it clearly isn’t an environmental disaster, offshore drilling is not the type of energy transformation we need. It remains to be seen if this controversial act will live up to the White House’s goal of securing support for energy and climate legislation.