In reversing controversial plans last week to expand offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, "As a result of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill we learned a number of lessons, most importantly that we need to proceed with caution.'' Salazar said the Obama administration is now laying out "a careful, responsible path for meeting our nation's energy needs while protecting our oceans and coastal communities.''
The reversal is welcome, but the nation is nowhere on a responsible path. A half year ago, President Obama described the spill as America's worst environmental disaster and a reminder "that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.'' But Americans, in the midst of the recession, remain conflicted about our energy and environmental priorities. They have handed the House back to the Republicans, who announced last week they will disband the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming currently chaired by Massachusetts' Democrat Ed Markey.
"The fact that we never really addressed those fundamental realities is really a missed opportunity,'' Peter Lehner, the executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a meeting last week with the Globe editorial board. "We never got to really debating the risks and rewards of drilling or what's more risky or safe.''
Considered the nation's second-most important national priority in some polls right after the BP spill in April, energy quickly plummeted in polls. By July, a Pew survey found that about two-thirds of Americans thought that while protecting the environment was "very important,'' it was also very important to create energy jobs and keep gasoline prices low. By August, an Associated Press poll found that more Americans favored increased drilling than not and more Americans said the need to drill for domestic sources of energy was more important than the need to protect the environment.
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For Lehner, it means critical dots remain to be connected. In a new book on the spill, he writes that our dependence on oil and auto imports from 2005 to 2009 accounted for nearly half of our trade deficit. Many of the auto imports were of course more fuel-efficient than what American automakers offered. While praising Obama's efforts on improving motor vehicle fuel efficiency standards, Lehner said that the environmental movement really has to "have the juice on these issues now from the White House.''
The reversal of drilling plans may hint at the latest strategy of the administration delivering juice to environmentalists while attempting to avoid being squeezed by Republicans, fossil-fuel state Democrats, and the oil industry. In moaning about the reversal on exploration, the American Petroleum Institute claimed it will "stop the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.'' But while Salazar put Atlantic and eastern Gulf drilling off-limits at least until 2017, exploration will still be considered - allegedly more carefully - for potential leasing in parts of the Arctic before 2017.
That possibility drew the protest of several environmental groups, including Lehner's. He said that the Arctic is "a region of the world where the wind often blows 50 miles an hour and in winter is almost always dark. The risk goes way up.''
The risks have now risen in Congress. Some of the most noteworthy moves of the Obama administration have been the re-empowering of the Environmental Protection Agency and pushing green energy. But with Republicans now threatening fresh attacks on the EPA and the Endangered Species Act, Obama needs to make sure the nation gets on a path toward responsible energy independence.