Drilling for Votes

President Obama announced Wednesday that he will open up huge new coastal areas to offshore drilling. The plan would make new areas off the coasts of Virginia and Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico available for drilling for oil and natural gas, and would end a longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along most of the eastern seaboard. "In order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we’re going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy," Obama said. "We need to move beyond the tired debates between right and left, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place."

It's good politics. Critics on the right complain that Obama's move doesn't go far enough to open up new areas for oil and gas exploration. Critics on the left are furious about the damage new drilling is likely to do to the coastal environment, with Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) denouncing the policy as "kill baby, kill." And the truth is that the policy won't have much impact on energy output or on oil prices any time soon. Oil prices certainly didn't drop on the news. As Obama himself said during the presidential campaign, "drilling is a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution. Not even close." Nevertheless, offshore drilling is very popular. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 68% of voters favor drilling—and even in both the Atlantic states and in California more people seem to be for drilling than are against it.

Tom Schaller calls the move "a classic Obama split-the-difference-with-a-tilt-to-the-left play straight from his Audacity of Hope playbook." President Obama is looking ahead toward trying to pass climate change legislation when Congress gets back from recess. The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin and Anne Kornblut write that Obama's real audience is "undecided senators who will determine whether a climate bill succeeds on Capitol Hill this year." It's not clear that Obama will get actually any Republican votes in exchange for this concession to oil and natural gas interests, just as he didn't get any Republican votes for including Republican ideas in the health care bill. But with the move he has stolen some of his critics' thunder, and blunted one of Sarah Palin's best applause lines. Opening up new areas to drilling makes it harder for wavering Senators to vote against a climate change bill, and as McClatchy suggests may help justify passing climate change legislation without bipartisan support.

But if the move is shrewd politics, it may nevertheless undermine the very policy President Obama is trying to pass. As Frank Tursi, a preservationist with the North Carolina Coastal Federation, told the New York Times, "It all leaves the president with a delicious irony and that is: In order to garner support for a bill that is intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the administration is willing to expand the very substance that causes those emissions in the first place."

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