To drill or not to drill? According to recent polls, two thirds of Americans think Congress should lift restrictions that prevent energy companies from exploring the outer continental shelf for oil and natural gas. President Bush, John McCain, most Republicans, and some Democrats support lifting the ban. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid find themselves on the wrong side of the drilling question, and it has thrown their party into disarray.
All three Democrats are tangled on the same tripwire: Their friends in the environmental movement want to stop oil exploration. Unlike most politicians, who face public outcry when gas gets pricey, environmental groups are willing to argue that gas should to be more expensive in order to make alternative sources of energy seem cost-efficient by comparison. It’s not just that they oppose new drilling; they also support a windfall-profits tax on the oil companies, new restrictions on current oil production, and the elimination of tax provisions that allow energy companies to write off the cost of expanding refinery capacity.
By making gas cheaper, increased domestic oil production would prolong what environmentalists see as America’s harmful dependence on fossil fuels. These groups would oppose offshore drilling even if it had no direct impact on the environment.
Obama echoed this thinking in June, when a reporter asked him if high gas prices could help wean the U.S. from its dependence on oil. Obama answered that they could, even though he “would have preferred a gradual adjustment.” That same month, he said that McCain’s drilling proposal “would only worsen our addiction to oil and put off needed investments in clean, renewable energy.”
That was then. In July, Rasmussen released a poll showing that 67 percent of Americans support lifting the ban on offshore drilling, and now Obama appears to have reversed his position. If “a careful, well-thought-out drilling strategy” were attached to “the kind of comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices,” he said in an interview with the Palm Beach Post, he wouldn’t “want to be so rigid that we can’t get something done.”
Obama’s reversal coincides with the news that Nancy Pelosi has given at-risk Democrats permission to publicly support offshore drilling, freeing them to take the popular position while she blocks any efforts to lift the ban. Pelosi refused to allow any votes on drilling before adjourning the House for a five-week August vacation. A number of House Republicans stayed in Washington to hold protest sessions, arguing that Congress shouldn’t be taking a vacation at a time when high gas prices have caused many Americans to cancel theirs.
In the Senate, Harry Reid (“Oil makes us sick, . . . It’s ruining our world. We’ve got to stop using fossil fuels”) also blocked energy legislation for fear that Republicans would offer drilling amendments and force Democratic senators (such as Barack Obama) to commit to positions. While their counterparts in the House are keeping the issue alive in Washington, Republican senators headed home to spend all five weeks talking about energy.
In both houses of Congress, the Democratic leadership has offered gimmicky solutions to distract the public from the drilling issue. First, Democrats argued that the oil companies had already leased millions of acres of public land that they weren’t using to produce any oil. That effort foundered when the oil companies pointed out that they weren’t producing oil on this land because they hadn’t found any when they explored it.
Then, Democrats pointed the finger at commodity traders, accusing them of driving up the price oil through “excessive speculation.” This effort didn’t gain any traction, either. Traders don’t conspire to drive up prices; they try to anticipate movements in supply and demand — so of course, as U.S. demand has slowed (and as an increasing number of U.S. policymakers have argued for increasing supply), the price of oil futures contracts has fallen.
The latest half-baked idea comes from a “gang of ten” senators — five Republicans, five Democrats — who have offered a compromise that would lift the ban on offshore drilling in exchange for $20 billion in new federal spending on alternative sources of energy. The list — ag-friendly guys like Saxby Chambliss and Kent Conrad, corn-staters like Ben Nelson and John Thune — smells of ethanol. The compromise bill includes $2.5 billion for biofuel research and billions more in incentives for automakers to make cars with ethanol-burning engines. There might be a smart way for Washington to subsidize research into alternative energy, but this isn’t it.
There is a simpler solution. The congressional ban on drilling has to be renewed each year, and the current ban expires in September, so congressional Republicans and President Bush should fight to stop the ban’s renewal. The Democrats are backpedaling like mad. Their presidential candidate doesn’t have a coherent position and has resorted to Carter-esque lectures on energy conservation. Meanwhile, the speaker of the House is telling vulnerable members of her caucus to support lifting the ban.
The Democrats find themselves on the wrong side of the most important issue to Americans right now. Now is not the time for a compromise. It’s time to keep applying pressure.