By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
Nobody’s perfect. That’s what drives me crazy about Barack Obama. I want him to be perfect. But just when I think he’s about to walk on water, he disappoints me again.
Latest disappointment? His embrace of offshore drilling as part of a new, “comprehensive” energy strategy. In this case, define “comprehensive” as “kitchen sink.”
Obama’s timing couldn’t have been worse. I mean, the guy was really on a roll. He had, by far, the best week of his presidency: signed the health care bill, announced agreement on a new START treaty with Russia, made 15 recess appointments, flew off to rally the troops in Afghanistan, then returned home to sign the reconciliation bill on health care and totally revamp the student loan program. Bravo!
And then, what’s he do for an encore? Borrows a page from John McCain and announces he will do what George Bush tried, but failed: lift the nation’s moratorium on offshore drilling, in place since 1981.
As laid out, Obama’s drilling plan is: a little now, a lot more later. The first lease sale would be limited to the coast of Virginia. But, at the same time, the entire Atlantic coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida would be open to study for future drilling — as would the eastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico and the northernmost coast of Alaska. Only Alaska’s Bristol Bay would be declared out of bounds. There are no new plans for drilling off the Pacific Coast — yet.
What’s especially puzzling is that Obama’s call for more offshore drilling comes after he’s done more than any other president to put the United States on a path to renewable energy — wind, solar, geothermal, the electric car — in order to free us from dependency on fossil fuels. Then, in a giant flip-flop, he turns around and races in the opposite direction. Which means he now advocates racing forward toward freedom from fossil fuels, while at the same time charging backward toward more dependency on fossil fuels! It makes no sense.
Now, it’s true that candidate Obama himself never said he opposed all offshore drilling. He was always very careful to leave the door slightly ajar. Nevertheless, throughout 2008 he repeated many of the same arguments Democrats were making against the Bush/McCain/Palin drilling plans. And those arguments are still valid today.
Offshore drilling is no silver bullet. It will take years, if not decades, to develop. It will do nothing in the near future to lower gas prices. And there are already many existing offshore areas approved for development where oil companies have yet to begin production because they’re uncertain of the payback.
Estimates of potential oil and gas reserves offshore are, indeed, sketchy at best — in part because some existing data is based on 30-year-old studies. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates there are 18 billion barrels of oil in the coastal areas covered by the moratorium. At present rates of consumption, those fields would be exhausted in less than two and a half years. Our coastline and beaches, meanwhile, would have been lost forever.
That’s the danger with offshore drilling: while the payoff is not clear, the risk clearly is. Any minuscule energy gain would be greatly offset by a huge environmental and economic loss. For most states, offshore drilling runs the risk of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs: destroying our most beautiful stretches of coastline and wrecking our valuable tourism and fishing industries.
So why even take the risk? Administration officials privately admit it’s mostly about politics. Obama’s willing to alienate environmentalists (and despoil the Atlantic coastline), they explain, in the hopes of winning a few Republican votes for his broader “cap and trade” legislation: the same reason he’s thrown new nuclear power plants into the mix.
Nonsense! If Obama really thinks Republicans are going to trade their vote for a handful of offshore oil platforms, that just proves he didn’t learn anything from the long health care debate. In the interest of bipartisanship, he dropped both the employer mandate and the public plan option from the health reform bill. And how many Republican votes did he get? Zero in the House. Zero in the Senate. He won’t get any for comprehensive energy legislation, either.
Granted, he’s not perfect. Still, I never thought I’d hear Barack Obama chanting: “Drill, baby, drill.”
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