With President Bush and congressional Republicans beating the drums daily for more oil and gas production, the Democrats are finally starting to crack and offer compromises. The Democrats, of course, can read the polls, and they know drilling is the one issue that threatens their otherwise commanding position heading into the November elections. But Bush and the Republicans can do better than a compromise. Indeed, a full no-compromise victory on domestic energy production is less than two months away if they can just stick together and defend current law.
Congress has never seen fit to enact a permanent moratorium on offshore drilling. Instead, it has opted for a series of one-year bans, with the latest ban ending at the close of September. Opponents of drilling thus need a vote on legislation to impose a new ban for fiscal 2009. President Bush, with his veto pen, is in a position to stop them.
The president can begin by announcing that offshore oil leasing will commence on October 1, 2008, the day after the current congressional ban expires. He then can make it clear to Democrats that he will veto any legislation to impose a new ban in October, even if Democrats attach it to so-called “must pass” legislation to keep government open. In other words, the president can dare the Democratic Congress to shut down the federal government in order to stop offshore oil leasing.
There is no good reason for the president to back down. We clearly need the oil and gas. According to conservative estimates from the Department of the Interior’s Mineral Management Service, the Outer Continental Shelf — where offshore drilling would take place — contains 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Through the end of September, 97 percent of this area is subject to the congressional ban on offshore exploration and production. And while it is true that energy companies need time to harvest this oil and gas, the mere perception of substantial new future production will break expectations of higher energy prices in the futures markets and bring down prices at the pump today. We had a preview of this effect last month when the president lifted the executive branch’s moratorium on offshore drilling.
A showdown on this issue also will be a political winner for Republicans. This is precisely what Democrats are scrambling to avoid. The Democrats initially thought they could circumvent the issue by halting work in the congressional appropriations committees, which usually include an annual drilling ban in the Interior Appropriations bill. It is now likely that Democrats will pursue a continuing resolution to keep the government running until after the election, using that resolution to sneak through an extension of the drilling ban.
The president should make it clear that he won’t sign any such extension. This would put the ball in the Democrats’ court, forcing them to decide whether stopping offshore drilling is worth shutting down the government. If they decide it is, just weeks before Election Day, the dynamics of the election will transform dramatically. Energy will no longer be one of several top-tier issues — it will be the only issue. And it will favor Republicans right when they need it most.
Polls show that as prices have risen at the pump, public support for offshore drilling has climbed, too. Most Americans, as many as 75 percent, are for increased offshore drilling, and they will favor the party that delivers it. Should Democrats opt for the government shutdown — and no new drilling — the political costs will be high.
Some Democrats will pin the blame for any shutdown on the president and the Republicans. But just as Newt Gingrich took the heat for closing down the government when he refused to accede to the wishes of President Clinton, today’s Democrats will be guilty of congressional obstinacy in the face of clear direction from the White House. Moreover, the president merely will be defending the continuation of existing law that calls for drilling to be permitted come October.
This really isn’t a risky strategy. With Republicans forecasted to take heavy losses in November, betting the election on the energy issue will only make the outlook brighter.
And the issue is exceedingly straightforward: Americans are straining under the burden of sky-high gas prices and they have no appetite for a new ban on offshore oil drilling. If Bush and the Republicans can put an end to the moratorium, they will have scored an important policy victory that could pay political dividends as well.