On September 30 — two months from today — the ban on fossil-fuel drilling off America’s Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) and in the oil-shale fields of the West will expire. Democrats, who control both houses of Congress, must pass an appropriations bill extending the bans.
The onus, in other words, is on them. Democrats will likely propose a continuing resolution to extend funding for the government through the end of the calendar year without making major changes. This bill will certainly include a continuation of the drilling ban — Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), a zealous opponent of offshore drilling since the 1980s, has resisted all attempts to change it.
Democrats are sufficiently committed to maintaining the ban that they could even be willing to force a government shutdown in September, or dare the Republicans to force one. But if Republicans are equally committed to increasing the domestic-energy supply, and President Bush is willing to use his veto pen, they have a golden opportunity.
This is the message of Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), who is urging the president and his congressional colleagues to take a risk and fight for drilling here at home. “If President Bush wants a domestic legacy, it has to be on this issue,” DeMint told National Review Online Tuesday. “This is the final few seconds of the game as far as his administration goes, and we’re down seven points. We can’t just keep running up the middle. It’s time to throw the Hail Mary.”
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that it would be premature to discuss the president’s position before Congress comes up with a concrete plan for appropriations bills. “It’s a hypothetical,” he said. “It’s too early to say what they’ll do.” Success will depend on President Bush’s willingness to fight. He left conservatives hanging recently by relenting on his threatened veto of the housing bailout. If he chooses a similar course of compromise with respect to drilling, he will have allowed congressional Democrats to continue their current approach of willful neglect of U.S. energy prices.
DeMint’s idea is just beginning to receive some discussion and attention on Capitol Hill, where his bombthrowing ways have not always endeared him to some important Republican colleagues. DeMint acknowledges that there are risks in forcing a showdown on energy policy, but that the battle would also be fought on the field where Republicans are most likely to win. “It is the only issue that could change the tide of this election, which is going against us right now,” he said.
Indeed, from a political perspective, there is no better issue for Republicans right now than energy. It may be their only good issue all year. With gasoline prices hovering well above $4.00 in some parts of the U.S., a June poll from Zogby International found 74 percent of respondents in favor of drilling for more oil and gas in American waters. The argument is bolstered by the fact that drilling costs the U.S. government nothing — Uncle Sam would actually make billions of dollars from new leases. The environmental hazards of offshore drilling are negligible, accounting for one percent of the oil spilled in American waters, according to the National Academy for the Sciences.
Republican campaigners can legitimately argue this fall that Democrats, under the ideological control of an intransigent environmental lobby, are unwilling to address the issue of high gasoline prices in a meaningful way. Democrats’ current attempt to limit speculators, which is on the Senate floor this week (S 3268), is designed to give only the appearance of action. It assumes incorrectly that current energy-market conditions result in large part from a few speculators’ long positions — not vice-versa.
As the Democrats spend time on such diversions, they are also pursuing environmental policies (such as carbon taxes and caps) that are designed to increase the price of gasoline beyond its current level, in order to force conservation by consumers, and so to decrease carbon emissions. Their leaders — most recently Rep. James Oberstar (D., Minn.), the powerful chairman of the House Transportation Committee — are also discussing an increase in the gasoline tax, a politically tone-deaf idea considering today’s high fuel prices.
Understandably, then, Republican officeholders and candidates are pushing the issue of energy as hard as possible. The question is whether the president and the GOP’s congressional leadership have the will to push the issue until Democrats make it a showdown over a government shutdown.
The ban on energy exploration in the ocean and on federal lands has been attached as a rider on the Interior appropriations bill every year for more than two decades. This arrangement gives the ban an expiration date and limits its scope. Appropriations bills determine how our tax dollars are used, but they do not have the permanent authority of federal statutes. Thus the so-called “drilling ban” does not ban drilling per se, but rather the use of public funds for issuing exploration leases on certain federal lands and ocean spaces.
On July 14, President Bush lifted the executive-branch prohibition on pre-leasing activities in the OCS. The leases can now be prepared for the day the ban expires. Under current statutes, new oceanic leases would not take effect until 2012, but Congress can easily move that date forward. By contrast, there has never been an executive prohibition on preparations for oil-shale leasing. According to a memorandum released yesterday by the Congressional Research Service, leases for five large tracts of shale-rich federal land in Utah and Colorado are ready to go and could be finalized almost immediately. Overall, the U.S. has 800 billion barrels’ worth of oil recoverable from shale, according to a study commissioned by the Department of Energy in 2002.
If President Bush is willing to veto any appropriations bill that contains the drilling ban, he will give congressional Republicans a serious chance in their legislative fight against the provision. “The sense among Republicans has been that we won’t be able to do anything on drilling because we have to get 60 votes,” DeMint told me. “But if the president helps us, we can lift it with just 34 votes.” Judging by the president’s speech yesterday in Ohio, in which he serially challenged Congress to act on the OCS ban, on oil-shale development, and on opening ANWR — all in order to lower consumer energy prices — it appears for now that he’s in the Congressional minority’s corner.
To be sure, a complete or even a partial government shutdown poses serious risks for Republicans. The parties would obviously blame one another for the situation, and things would get ugly right before the election. Many Republicans remember the disaster that befell the party after the 1995 spending fight with President Bill Clinton that led to a shutdown. But DeMint points out that this fight, unlike that one, would be over a high-profile issue on which Republicans are clearly supported by the American public. Drilling is popular, and the Democratic majority is not — and that is a recipe for success.
“The chances of us winning are much greater than the chances of us losing on this, because the American people are so tuned in on the issue.” DeMint said. “It’s not like the obscure issues of spending levels that predominated in the last government shutdown. And I think many voters will wonder: What good are the Republicans if they won’t even stand up on this?” And that is a perfectly legitimate question.
Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected since its initial posting.
– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.