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Obama Opening Pieces of US Coastline to Offshore Drilling

David Dayen

The New York Times has the story:

The Obama administration is proposing to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time, officials said Tuesday.

The proposal - a compromise that will please oil companies and domestic drilling advocates but anger some residents of affected states and many environmental organizations - would end a longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, covering 167 million acres of ocean.

Under the plan, the coastline from New Jersey northward would remain closed to all oil and gas activity. So would the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border.

The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska would be protected and no drilling would be allowed under the plan, officials said. But large tracts in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska - nearly 130 million acres - would be eligible for exploration and drilling after extensive studies.

Obama himself will make this announcement today, in just a couple hours.

This is puzzling on a number of levels.

  • The LA Times refers to this as a bargaining chip in the climate bill debate, but I see it more like showing your cards before the end of the hand. Why would you let Republicans know about a pre-compromised offshore drilling regime, so that they can push for even more? This won't garner one Republican vote any more than compromising the health care bill garnered any Republican votes. If this was the result of a negotiation, fine, but this comes BEFORE the negotiation.
  • This comes right at a time when core supporters were starting to get energized about the midterm elections and about the President's performance. There is nobody in the Democratic base who is particularly excited about "Drill Baby Drill." It's true that the President actually noted support for it on the campaign trail, at the height of the drilling conversation, but the timing couldn't be worse for this action. It's especially galling that students have the most to lose from this plan, a day after Obama signed a groundbreaking piece of legislation specifically aiding students.
  • Nobody has been talking about this for close to two years. Conservatives had moved on to other topics, and now this will come rushing back. And instead of crediting the President for basically handing them one of their issues, they'll criticize him for exempting the West Coast and the Northeast.

Either Obama thinks the climate bill is dead and he's handing out a couple of the goodies he already promised, or his team has assessed that these tracts won't be cost-effective enough for oil companies to actually do the drilling, so it's a low-cost hedge toward moderation. We know that oil companies have thousands of reserve contracts for on-shore drilling sites in the US that they haven't and probably will not ever explore. They end up on company profiles as "future reserve sites" to prove the stability of their operations to investors. In the end, this may end up being a big giveaway to oil company balance sheets, without the environmental hazards.

I'll close with this statement from Jonathan Hiskes:

The substances at issue here-oil and natural gas-will eventually be burned, releasing heat-trapping pollutants that cause global warming. If that continues unchecked, it could be the most destructive and unjust phenomena of the coming century. There's no mention of any of this in the stories from major news outlets. Just sayin'.

UPDATE: One other thing. The leaks I've heard about offshore drilling in the climate bill emphasized local control, as in "you can drill if your state wants it." Maybe that's a part of this announcement. We'll have to see.

UPDATE II: Here's a shock, John Boehner is upset that Obama didn't open up the entire American coastline. Amazingly, compromising with Republicans doesn't yield Republican support!

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David Dayen writes regularly for FireDogLake

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