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Democrats Cave on Offshore Drilling


After months spent vowing to protect the nation’s coastlines from new offshore oil drilling, House Democrats yesterday caved to the White House over the thorny issue, saying they will allow a 26-year-old ban on new exploration to expire.

If it stands, the move will permit oil companies to drill beyond three miles from both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts — a far larger area than allowed under a Democratic proposal that passed the House last week. That bill would have prevented new drilling up to 50 miles from shore, but Democratic leaders, anxious to get out of town for the election season, abandoned their fight to avoid a budget battle with the White House — which threatened to veto the legislation.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“At least temporarily, the moratorium is lifted,’” Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters late Tuesday. “This next election will decide what our drilling policy is going to be.”

Politically speaking, the timing was genius. Most of Tuesday was engulfed by debate over the nation’s financial meltdown, with most of the media’s attention focused on a joint Capitol Hill appearance by Treasury Sec. Henry Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. At the tail end of the tempest, Obey’s office informed reporters at 5:01 p.m. that the appropriations chairman would hold his brief press conference 14 minutes later.

House Republicans — who had spent much of August demanding a vote on a drilling expansion — were quick to declare victory. A statement released last night by the Republican Study Committee, headed by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), proclaims: “GOP Secures American Energy Development.”

More accurately, it was public sentiment that caused the Democrats’ reversal. With gas prices topping $4 per gallon over the summer, polls began to show that voters support new drilling by increasingly large margins. Their reasoning was flawed: The Bush administration’s own Energy Dept. has concluded that expanded drilling will have no significant effect on fuel prices before 2030. But Democrats were never successful in selling that message to voters.

“The public has simply not been made aware of the reality,” said David Jenkins, government affairs director of Republicans for Environmental Protection.

The development is bad news for environmentalists, who lobbied all year to keep the moratorium in place. Aside from the environmental dangers, they argue, increased drilling only heightens the nation’s fossil-fuel addiction, accelerating global warming and fostering a reliance on foreign oil. Some blasted the Democrats for dropping the fight.

“It’s just bad policy,” said Nick Berning, spokesman for Friends of the Earth. “The Democrats caved on this.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.), hoping to protect roughly 840 miles of California coastline, vowed to return to the battle next year. “I think it’s awful,” Feinstein said in a statement. “We will come back and fight another day — that’s for sure.”

The Sierra Club had pounced on Republicans for their insistence that the drilling ban be lifted, accusing the GOP of “opposing clean energy and being in the pocket of Big Oil.” The group went much softer on the Democrats for lifting the moratorium. Following Obey’s announcement, the group issued a bland statement placing its hopes in reinstating the ban next year.

“We do not expect that this is the end of the moratorium that has protected our coasts since 1981,” the group said. “The moratorium could very well be restored by a new Congress and president who understand that more offshore drilling will do nothing to lower gas prices or solve our energy crisis.”

Daniel Becker, a former Sierra Club official who is now director of the Safe Climate Campaign, agreed, pointing out that the few months before the next administration arrives is too short a span for companies to begin drilling. “I don’t think it’s going to do real damage,” he said.

Two separate moratoriums — rooted in environmental and tourism concerns — have prevented new offshore oil exploration for decades: one stemming from the White House and the other from Congress. President George W. Bush lifted his ban in July; the congressional ban, usually renewed annually in spending bills, expires Oct. 1.

The issue has posed difficulties for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.), a long-time opponent of new offshore drilling who, fearing a November backlash, reversed course when public opinion did. “They’re going to do what’s necessary to win in November,” Jenkins said. “That’s just the political reality.”

Pelosi’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Last week, Pelosi pushed through a proposal allowing state-approved drilling between 50 and 100 miles offshore, and all drilling beyond 100 miles. The bill was largely a political ploy: The Energy Dept. has determined that most of the country’s untouchable offshore oil — estimated at nearly 18 billion barrels — rests much closer to shore than the Democratic plan would have allowed. Indeed, most Republicans opposed the legislation.

The recent Democratic move, however, has brought only cheers from across the aisle. That, too, was a political calculation made with November in mind.

“It’s very hard for Republicans to attack Democrats,” Becker said, “for blocking something they’re not blocking.”

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