Offshore oil, off-base idea

New offshore drilling decision is bad policy and worse politics

President ObamaâÄôs recently-announced plan to open up vast swaths of the nationâÄôs coastline to oil exploration is both bad policy and bad politics. It will not significantly increase energy independence, it will not get more votes âÄî in Congress or in elections âÄî and it will strengthen those opposed to moving away from carbon fuels by giving credence to the âÄòdrill, baby, drillâÄô frame. Realistic estimates show that there may be approximately 2 billion recoverable barrels of oil off the Atlantic Coast, enough for just 100 days supply at the current rate of use. At current prices, it does, however, represent $170 billion in new revenue for global oil behemoths. And for customers? The U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates that even with all offshore areas open to drilling, gas prices would be just 3 cents lower per gallon in 2030 than otherwise, and still much higher than today. Accessing this supply means a lot of profit for Big Oil, but very little benefit for customers. In addition, offshore drills pose direct risks to the fragile marine environment, even with modern, comparatively safe techniques. While large spills are unlikely, discharges of ballast, cleaning, and other pollutants are much more common. This all would be a small price to pay, however, as part of an actual legislative solution that moves toward a low-carbon economy. In exchange for absolutely nothing, however, it is a blow to environmental protection and detrimental to fighting climate change. Meaningful carbon-limiting legislation will require a comprehensive energy strategy that ties together diverse constituencies with buy-in from each. Building such a coalition will inevitably require some pro-drilling Republican votes. Indeed, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) has proposed a grand bargain linking carbon reductions to offshore drilling. Predictably, since there was no deal in place, Senator Graham has now moved the goalposts, saying that the PresidentâÄôs plan amounts to âÄúbaby stepsâÄù and is âÄúnot enough.âÄù The President preemptively tipped his strongest hand. What now will be given up once actual negotiations use that as the PresidentâÄôs new starting point? Passing and sustaining strong energy and climate legislation will require as many Democrats in Congress as President Obama can muster, which in turn requires getting the base to the polls. In the upcoming midterm elections, campaigns will be won and lost based on voter intensity and turnout; fueled by the Tea Party movement, Republicans currently hold a clear advantage. For every one of the few swing voters who will be persuaded by this decision there will be a demoralized, environmentally-minded Democrat, seeing little reason to support the party. Ultimately, by unilaterally adopting a pro-drilling stance, the President has accepted the argument that energy security can be achieved through exploiting every last drop of oil. Much more could be achieved by moving more rapidly to higher efficiency vehicles or âÄî even better âÄî a renewable energy-powered fleet of electric vehicles and wider adoption of mass transit. In todayâÄôs political landscape, good policy also requires good politics. Unfortunately, this plan doesnâÄôt offer much of either. Kyle Weimann welcomes comments at [email protected]