Offshore-drilling move deepens rift over future of oil

If Congress follows Bush, oil rigs like this one could proliferate off U.S. coasts.
REUTERS/CDIC
If Congress follows Bush, oil rigs like this one could proliferate off U.S. coasts.

President Bush’s announcement this week that he was lifting the moratorium on offshore oil drilling won’t mean derricks off the Florida coast or cheaper gas prices any time soon. But it will put additional pressure on Congress to lift its moratorium, enacted in 1981, give a potential boost to Sen. John McCain, who favors lifting the ban, and send a message that the president is concerned about our dependence on foreign oil.

For many Democrats and environmentalists, the proposal was anathema.

Steven Lee Myers and Carl Hulse reported in The New York Times:  “Rather than signaling a change in the country’s policy, the president’s decision appeared only to harden well-established positions, intensifying an already contentious issue in the middle of an election year.”

The Times quotes Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as saying that “the Bush plan is a hoax. It will neither reduce gas prices nor increase energy independence.”

And presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama said in a statement, “If offshore drilling would provide short-term relief at the pump or a long-term strategy for energy independence, it would be worthy of our consideration, regardless of the risks. But most experts, even within the Bush administration, concede it would do neither. It would merely prolong the failed energy policies we have seen from Washington for 30 years.”

‘That will clearly affect the futures market’
McCain responded: “As we transition to different kinds of energy we need to have sufficient oil reserves off our coast to either reduce or at least cushion the increased costs of oil. If we can show that we have significant oil reserves off our coasts, that will clearly affect the futures market and affect the price of oil. I urge Senator Obama to change his position on this issue.”

There are actually two bars against drilling offshore, one enacted by Congress in 1981 and one announced by the first President Bush in 1990, both intended to protect coastal beaches and fisheries. Dan Eggen and Steven Mufson write in the Washington Post, “Bush’s move carries symbolic and political significance on an emotional issue in an election year. … Bush argued that allowing drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines would ease pressure on oil prices by increasing domestic production. Bush also urged Congress to approve other steps, such as allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and he blamed Democratic opposition to drilling for the current run-up in gasoline prices.”

And, despite Democratic opposition to lifting the ban, the political climate might be changing, according McClatchy’s David Lightman and Renee Schoof:

“Democratic leaders in Congress who oppose further drilling could face a tougher fight to keep the congressional moratorium in place. Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said last week that he was open to some drilling. A June 26-29 CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 73 percent of people surveyed favored more drilling.”

Benefits perhaps a decade away

They also point out that lifting the ban will have little short-term impact and not necessarily much more down the road. “Experts agree that it would take at least seven and probably 10 years before any benefits from overturning the ban on offshore drilling were evident. Annual American oil production is about 1.8 billion barrels, and the Interior Department estimates that as much as 19 billion barrels — some even put it as high as 115 billion — remain untapped in coastal areas that now are off limits to drillers. If the 19 billion barrels were available — a more likely prospect — the United States would have another 920 days, or two and a half years, of supplies at current consumption rates.”

Or as Ron Way put it the other day in a post on this site:

“The Center for Economic Policy and Research said that had the U.S. improved automobile efficiency standards at a very modest rate of four-tenths of a gallon per year between 1985 and 2007, the United States would have saved a staggering 3.3 million barrels of oil a day, or more than 16 times the rate that may be obtained from offshore sources.”

But to some commentators like Keith Johnson in The Wall Street Journal, Bush’s move is more complicated.

“President Bush’s decision to lift his father’s White House moratorium on offshore oil drilling lends itself to two readings. It’s either a cynical exercise in passing the energy-policy buck, this time to Congress. Or it’s a potentially clever play to take some steam out of future oil prices by giving the market reason to believe the U.S. will at some point tap into larger domestic reserves. …

“But the implications of the offshore drilling ban go beyond short-term gas prices or long-term supplies. Psychology matters. The oil markets are nervous. Traders are increasingly convinced that there will be tight supplies for the foreseeable future, and they are bidding up prices. By continuing to lock out offshore territories containing billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of gas, Obama and the Democrats are providing more reason for oil buyers to believe that crude supplies will remain tight for years to come.

The psychological equation
“President Bush’s move Monday won’t affect physical supplies of oil. The question is whether it will affect how Congress and the market see the future of oil.”

The way many environmentalists see it, however, the issue is not just about oil. Dan Shapely writes in the Daily Green:

“The decision to drill, then, really comes down to this: Are we committed to burning oil for another generation? Given that we’re making a decision that won’t bear fruit for a decade, but will affect the way we live for at least a decade or two after that, shouldn’t we ask a simple question: What are the other options? What else could we do in a decade to change how much we pay to get from here to there? How many electric cars could we produce in a decade? How much biodiesel? Bush famously declared not so long ago that we are a nation addicted to oil. Evidentially, the intervention didn’t work. Drilling for oil when the price is high amounts to finding a new vein to shoot. Artery in your arm is collapsing? Shoot between the toes.

“But our addiction isn’t just to oil, it’s to gambling. Our unacknowledged gamble is on global warming: That it won’t hurt us near as bad as the smartest scientists say it will. If oil is the drug, and global warming is the gamble, then the melting Arctic is the hooker hanging around the table — the glaring sign that should tell us we’ve gone too far, that it’s time to stop the game.”

Environment and the economy
As in any environmental debate, there are tradeoffs between protection of wildlife or a beach on the one hand and economic concerns on the other. In the case of Enid Sisskin of Gulf Breeze, Fla., a member of the Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, the two go hand-in-hand.

According to Debbie Elliot of National Public Radio, Sisskin has been fighting drilling for 16 years.

“Sisskin notes that tourists visit the Pensacola, Fla., beaches for white sands and emerald waters. Tourism not only fuels the economy here; it’s the economic engine for the state.

“‘It’s what people come here for,’ Sisskin says. ‘We’re not willing to sacrifice our economy for what is potentially a very small amount of oil or gas in comparison to the world supply and will do very little if anything to lower prices.'”

Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 07/16/2008 - 10:59 am.

    Come on Doug! I am sick of the environmental spin!

    Please encourage Democratic politicians have the courage to run on the platform of high gas prices. We all know that the party of high energy prices in the Dems. They just do not have the courage to admit it.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 07/16/2008 - 01:02 pm.

    Spin? Spin??? Check out The Apollo Program, Mr. Gotzman. Within the 10 years or so that it would take to get a measly amount of oil from off-shore drilling, we can build an entire infrastructure based in renewables instead of oil, coal and gas. We would be COMPLETELY off what some call our “addiction” to foreign oil and completely ON a reliable, non-polluting source of energy.

    And this is not the only group to prepare such a plan. Starting now would produce a huge shot in the arm for our sick economy: hundreds of thousands of new jobs to build and operate the new system.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 07/16/2008 - 03:23 pm.

    Hey Bernice,

    So you like high gas prices too!?

  4. Submitted by John Olson on 07/17/2008 - 09:29 am.

    The realities are that the automobile industry has had no incentive to improve fuel efficiency until recently. With gas at $4 a gallon, the “Big Three” are figuring it out too late and are now trying to desperately play catch-up.

    Since the mid-1970’s, both parties have brought us to this point. Add to that the political clout of Ford, GM and Chrysler and the clout of the UAW. Their joint efforts resulted in us bailing out Chrysler in 1979 with political support from both parties. Can another bailout of what’s left of the Big Three be far off?

    I do not like high gas prices any more than the next person, so I am driving fewer miles in the car and putting more miles on my motorcycle. For those who want (or need) to continue to pay over $100 to fill their tanks without changing their driving behavior, that is their choice.

    There is plenty of blame to pass around.

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