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McCain Bets on Off Shore Drilling

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/sb-oil-spill.jpgThe Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 spurred the environmental movement. (usgs.gov)

**Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to include the results of a new poll released July 30.

On a January afternoon in 1969, Paradise was violated and the modern environmental movement was born.

Six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., a “blowout” erupted below a Union Oil Co. platform, spewing crude oil from drilling-induced cracks in the Santa Barbara Channel floor.

It took almost two weeks to cap the leak and, before it was plugged, the oil spill had grown to more than 3 million gallons. It spread across 800 square miles of ocean, spoiling more than 35 miles of Southern California’s coast.

Politics-150x150_5216.jpg
Politics-150x150_5216.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Dead and injured sea animals and birds washed up along the beaches, covered in the black goo. Images of the devastation, transmitted around the world, helped galvanize environmentalists and triggered the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air Act.

In the wake of Santa Barbara’s calamity, the U.S. president, a Republican and a California native, observed, “What is involved is the use of our resources of the sea and of the land in a more effective way and with more concern for preserving the beauty and the natural resources that are so important to any kind of society that we want for the future. The Santa Barbara incident,” Richard M. Nixon concluded, “has frankly touched the conscience of the American people.”

Offshore oil drilling became a “third rail issue” in California politics—touch it and you die. It’s remained so for nearly 40 years— particularly for state Democrats, who rely on environmentalists as a key constituency. And, by-and-large, the nation went along.

Then, with skyrocketing oil and gas prices, and increasing economic distress, President George W. Bush announced he was lifting the presidential moratorium on offshore drilling. He called on Congress to lift its ban as well. Offshore oil drilling has resurfaced as a hot-button issue on the national level. It is an issue that divides voters and the two presidential candidates.

When the 2008 campaign began, both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama opposed offshore drilling. Mc Cain had also opposed it in his unsuccessful 2000 presidential bid. Both McCain and Obama were—somewhat successfully — wooing environmentalists. McCain’s green energy stand was one way he could distance himself from an extraordinarily unpopular president.

Why then did McCain reverse himself and call for lifting offshore drilling restrictions —even before Bush lifted the presidential ban? His switch angered environmental groups he’d been wooing for years. In California, his switch irked many moderate Republicans, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had endorsed McCain, but who roundly criticized the Arizona senator’s new take on offshore drilling.

Taking a calculated risk that voter anger about high fuel prices would trump environmentalism in today’s economy, McCain positioned himself alongside to Bush on an issue that independents and Democrats — as well as many suburban Republicans — care about; McCain gambled on giving Obama an opening to link him to “the same misguided approach backed by President Bush,” as well as to “big oil companies.”

But McCain’s risk could pay off. Essentially, McCain has traded any likelihood of taking California in November — a pie-in-the-sky assumption about this blue state, anyway — for the possibility of gaining votes in crucial Heartland states, like Michigan and Ohio

In pivotal Florida, for example, Democrats and Republicans have long been united in their opposition to offshore drilling. But there now appears to be a shift in opinion favorable to McCain’s new stance. The state’s Republican governor, Charlie Crist, a V.P. prospect, changed sides to support McCain. In addition, a just-released Rasmussen survey shows that 57 percent of Florida voters now favor of offshore drilling, while only 32 percent do not. A slim majority of voters (51 percent) in this battleground state think reducing gas prices is more important than protecting the environment.

National polls reveal that voters might be ready to endorse lifting the ban. A Gallup poll in mid-May showed that 57 percent of respondents favored “[a]llowing oil drilling in U.S. coastal and wilderness areas now off-limits to oil exploration.” Tellingly, there were significant partisan differences in support. Only 38 percent of Democrats agreed with this, compared to 80 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of those coveted independent voters.

A Rasmussen survey from June–before McCain announced his support–showed 67 percent of voters now support oil drilling off the coasts of California, Florida and other states. Only 18 percent disagree.

This survey, too, revealed a significant partisan divide — 85 percent of Republicans favor offshore drilling, compared to 57 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independent voters.

In California, on the other hand, a statewide Field Poll as recently as early July shows voters “remain opposed to the idea of allowing oil companies to drill more oil and gas wells along the California coastline.“ Fifty-one percent of Californians are opposed, and 43 percent approve. However, statewide opposition is down from a high of 62 percent in 1990 and 56 percent in 2001 and 2005.

There are partisan differences here, too. Republicans approve offshore drilling by 63 percent — but that’s 17 points lower than their approval nationally. Democrats disapprove 61 percent to 31 percent (nationally their approval registers slightly higher, at 39 percent). Significantly, in the Golden State, 58 percent of independents disapprove of offshore drilling — nationally that figure is 43 percent.

**However, a just-released survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) shows that Californians’ support for offshore oil drilling has suddenly increased to 51 percent (up from 41 percent in 2007). According to the PPIC analysis, it’s “the first time since 2003, when PPIC first posed the question, that more Californians favor offshore drilling than oppose it (45 percent), a shift caused in large part by a surge in support among Republicans (77 percent, up from 60 percent).” Six of 10 Democrats and half of independents still oppose offshore oil drilling to meet our energy needs. This shift in voter opinion, according to PPIC, is “one of many reactions to soaring gas prices.”

Yet none of these numbers tell the entire story. They cannot gauge the intensity of public opinion. In the end, offshore oil drilling is an issue not unlike gun control. The passion is still on the side of its opponents. That could mobilize the environmental movement against McCain come the fall. For other voters the issue may have less importance, and be less motivating.

Both sides now think they can capitalize on the issue of oil drilling. Democrats are looking to gain ground with a flurry of ads attacking Republicans up and down the ballot for bedding down politically with Big Oil. At the same time, McCain is planning to assail the Democrats’ inaction on oil independence, staging photo ops in front of oil wells.

It remains to be seen which strategy — if either — will pay political dividends. But it’s hard to imagine McCain striking an electoral gusher with his new embrace of offshore drilling for oil independence.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior scholar at the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development.

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