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Drill team

High prices at the pump are changing the politics of domestic oil extraction and handing Republicans a potentially hot issue for the fall campaign


Drill team
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With every upward tick of the gas pump price gauge, American consumers grow more desperate for relief and less enamored with environmental causes. Dropping $70 for a tank of fuel that cost $35 less than two years ago has proved a powerful agent for change in the political winds. Many Republicans believe the nation is now ready to reconsider a 27-year-old blockade to offshore oil drilling.

GOP presidential candidate John McCain stands among that lot, throwing his weight behind ending the drilling ban in a speech to Houston oil executives this month. McCain's reversal of his long-standing opposition to offshore exploration mirrors the progression of many U.S. voters and could prove politically expedient.

Nevertheless, Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama blasted the Arizona senator for not taking the long view: "It's another example of short-term political posturing from Washington, not the long-term leadership we need to solve our dependence on oil." Obama favors a windfall profits tax on oil companies and greater federal investment in renewable energy sources, a strategy more in line with public opinion from two years ago when gas prices first began their historic climb.

New polls suggest changing attitudes. Gallup reports that 57 percent of Americans support opening up more domestic areas for drilling, and a new Rasmussen survey finds two-thirds of voters favor drilling off the coasts of California, Florida, and other states.

What's more, in the midst of an international food shortage partially resulting from the recent biofuel fad, some environmentalists have stepped off the alternative fuel soapbox. Turns out, converting food to fuel carries unintended consequences-like starvation in Third World countries.

Even among those still opposed to new drilling sites, the combination of pain at the pump and in the grocery aisle has at least offered a stiff reminder that economic consequences of environmental policy are no trifle. High gas prices might well explain the failure of a cap-and-trade carbon emissions bill to gain any significant traction in the Senate earlier this month.

But following Obama's lead, Democrats remain unwavering in their opposition to offshore drilling. An amendment to a House spending bill that would have allowed new drilling sites 50-200 miles from the country's shores has twice failed at the subcommittee level along party lines this month. Rep. John E. Peterson, R-Pa., the amendment's author, is surprised that Democrats remain unwilling to budge on an initiative with increasing public support: "The American people understand we now have chosen not to use our energy. The Democrats will have to tell us why."

The majority party's explanation is three-fold: First, compromise legislation from 2006 opened 8.3 million acres to oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, which has yet to yield returns. And the federal government has leased some 91 million additional acres for domestic production, much of which is going unused. Second, they say, potential domestic oil reserves amount to just 3 percent of the world's supply and could not solve our foreign dependency or significantly reduce prices. Lastly, they fear environmental degradation from the threat of coastal oil spills.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a leading critic of drilling off the Florida coast, condemns McCain's new position on the issue and has instead introduced a bill to ban unregulated trading of oil on the commodities market, which some analysts blame for rising costs. "There isn't enough oil in the U.S. to make even the smallest dent in world oil prices," he said. "To curb prices in the short run, we need to regulate oil traders. For the long term, we need to break America's oil addiction."

According to government reports, the nation uses about 20 million barrels of oil per day. The federal Minerals Management Service estimates that Peterson's amendment would open access to 86 billion barrels, enough to supply national needs for more than a decade, though not all of that oil may be immediately accessible.

Oil companies contend that the areas currently open for drilling do not contain sufficient reserves to make production commercially viable. They say Democrats' assertions that federally leased lands remain untapped reflect naiveté about the nature of oil extraction. Companies must purchase and explore large blocks of land in hopes that a small area will yield enough oil to justify the initial purchase. Once reserves are discovered, mapping, construction, and drilling can take years, during which time the land appears to remain untapped in statistical analyses.

Rex Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon, told The Wall Street Journal that "anybody who's got a commercial discovery today in the United States has got it under development."

Peterson believes that no matter whether the new drilling sites produced large quantities quickly, legislation opening the door to wider domestic production would send a signal to investors that would help stabilize the market. The impact of McCain's new plan would likewise be more about positive market signs than an immediate influx of supply. His proposal would leave the decision to individual states on whether to drill.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, though generally a supporter of McCain and his middle-of-the-road style of GOP politics, is opposed to drilling off the California coast. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has also opposed such initiatives along his state's coastline, but has now changed his mind in the wake of McCain's new proposal. "It's the last thing in the world I'd like to do, but I also understand what people are paying at the pump, and I understand the drag it is on our economy," Crist said. "I hope I have a reputation of wanting to protect this environment, because I do. But I also have to balance that, as every citizen does, with what's happening to Florida families, what's happening to this economy, how dependent we are on foreign oil."

New technologies that ensure much cleaner and safer offshore drilling also help render the practice more palatable to politicians and voters alike. The environmental degradation argument has little empirical data behind it, given the performance of more than 3,000 oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Not even the winds and waves of Hurricane Katrina could provoke a single incidence of leakage.

Nevertheless, in changing their positions, McCain and Crist open themselves to the dreaded charge of flip-flopping. Obama sought to make that case in pointing out McCain's strong support for the drilling moratorium during his 2000 run for the Republican presidential nomination. Florida Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski likewise called attention to Crist's 2006 gubernatorial platform, which included opposition to offshore drilling. But voters are less apt to worry about such reversals when so many of them have followed the same course.

McCain still opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a position that separates him from the Bush administration and bothers many conservatives. "We call it a refuge for a reason," he said.

But such line-toeing has not spared McCain from the barbs of environmentalists, who view his newfound support for coastal drilling as kowtowing to oil companies. The Sierra Club issued a point-by-point refutation of McCain's Houston speech, and executive director Carl Pope accused the presumptive GOP nominee of advocating "more of the same reckless and outdated energy policies that President Bush and his allies in Congress have pushed for the past seven years."

The Sierra Club echoes Sen. Nelson in arguing that the United States should not continue seeking new oil supplies but instead must break its "addiction" to this cheap and efficient fuel. The environmentalist group charges further that offshore drilling constitutes a "wholesale exploitation of our coasts."

Such language seeks to attach moral connotations to the issue of energy consumption, as though using the earth's resources constitutes evil. And some Christians believe that. The Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) is among the Christian organizations calling for "green" living. EEN spokeswoman Debbie Payton told WORLD the group holds no official stance on offshore drilling, but in a 2004 issue of the network's quarterly journal, Creation Care Magazine, writer Michael Crook recounted the horror of a beachside camping trip ruined by the lights and hum of oil rigs off the Gulf Coast of Texas. He admitted harboring anger at oil moguls, but extended Christian charity in reminding readers that God "can save them."

E. Calvin Beisner, head of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, calls such moralizing "legalistic." He says the issue for evangelicals to consider is what impact energy policies have on the poor, rather than worrying about whether we are crossing some arbitrary threshold of acceptable energy use.

"Anything that forces energy prices upward forces food prices upward, which is going to hurt people who are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder," he said, recalling the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s and its devastating effects on Africa and Asia.


Mark Bergin Mark is a former WORLD reporter.

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