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In and Out With Offshore Drilling

Recent calls by President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain to lift the almost 30-year ban on offshore oil drilling have created a swirl of controversy around the Republican Party’s political strategy. Both the president and the party’s presumed presidential nominee have switched their positions on the matter. In the past, McCain, who has a long-standing reputation as a politician who cares about the environment, has been particularly vocal in opposing coastal drilling.

While Bush is pushing for offshore drilling on his way out of office, Sen. McCain is using the issue as a way into the presidency. Voters have cited gasoline prices as one of the most important issues of this year’s presidential election, and the GOP nominee in-all-but-name is doing everything he can to make himself look like the energy candidate. But it’s unclear whether offshore drilling will actually do anything to reduce gas prices. That’s one reason analysts disagree on whether McCain’s sudden change on the issue is good strategy or a political misstep.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

The issue is an emerging as an important one. On average, the price of gas has soared to $4.08 a gallon across the U.S., reaching as high as $4.59 a gallon in states like California. Just two years ago, gas averaged $2.58 a gallon — a price most Americans never imagined they would look back on with longing.

Recent polls show that voter attitudes may well be changing when it comes to drilling in offshore areas. The majority of Americans interviewed for a May Gallup poll said they would support drilling in coastal and wilderness areas if it meant a reduction in gas prices. Fifty-seven percent of those polled favored the measure and 41 percent opposed it.

"With $4-plus gas, Americans are more open to policies that they might not have been open to four years ago," said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll.

Political scientist Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, agrees. "Voters are so frustrated," he said, "that they are open to lots of solutions they might normally reject: drilling, exploration, nuclear power, major conservation restrictions etc." But, he pointed out, that doesn’t mean offshore drilling would be their No. 1 priority when it comes to energy alternatives.

"Of course, both McCain and Obama have energy plans," Sabato said, "so they both have proposals to talk about. Voters often conclude in cases like this that the problem will be tackled no matter which one is elected — and thus, the issue declines on the list of voter priorities. We’ll see — too early to say."

An even more recent Gallup poll found that Americans see Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee, as better able than McCain to handle energy issues, including gas prices, and the overall economy. On energy and gas prices, 47 percent chose Obama and 28 percent chose McCain. Obama opposes offshore drilling.

Yet even as the public seems more accepting of drilling, public opinion data also shows that Americans are more likely to seek other options before supporting drilling in off-limits coastal areas. In a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken earlier this month, Americans ranked a list of energy alternatives to address rising gas prices. The most popular option was to encourage the expansion of wind and solar power. The offshore drilling option was the fourth on the list, only considered viable after looking into wind and solar power, Alaska exploration and energy conservation.

McCain has made a serious political bet by changing his position on drilling. California and Florida are two key coastal states with a lot to lose from offshore drilling. Both states have long opposed lifting the ban on drilling, not just for environmental reasons, but for economic reasons as well.

Richard Charter, government relations consultant for the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, calls McCain’s move "political suicide." "You’ve [now] got editorials all over Florida and California and most coastal states saying, ‘Oh my God, don’t let McCain trash the coast.’" These states have economies that are coastal dependent. According to Charter, 700,000 jobs and $43 billion could be at stake due to industries that depend on a clean coastline and clean coastal waters. Those industries include tourism and maritime activities.

Supporting coastal drilling, said Charter, "is virtually political suicide in Florida and California. And you don’t win the presidential election without Florida. …Throwing Florida under the bus is political suicide."

Yet, as with national attitudes, opinion in Florida may also be shifting as the price of gas climbs. A poll by Rasmussen Reports found that 61 percent of Florida voters agreed with McCain that offshore drilling will reduce gas prices, while 34 percent agreed with Obama that drilling will not reduce gas prices.

Many analysts say that offshore drilling won’t affect gas prices for another 20 years. The Bush administration’s own Energy Information Administration agrees with this assessment. An EIA report found that "access to the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030." The EIA report went on to say that if there is a price reduction, it wouldn’t be significant. "Because oil prices are determined on the international market, however," the report found, "any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant."

Adrian Herrera, an energy analyst from Alaska, says McCain’s "flip-flop" on this issue reflects a change in voter sentiment. That sentiment has become more open to domestic oil drilling, he says, because price volatility is so high. "[McCain's] flip-flop on the issue is totally political," Herrera said. "In the last two weeks, public opinion has changed dramatically. Public opinion has really come to a head. It’s been building over the last three months because of the price of gasoline. People in America, rather unfortunately, will not act until it’s almost too late, until it hits them in the pocketbook and hits them hard." Acting, he said, means supporting domestic oil drilling.

Despite what the polls say, it’s unlikely that a Democratically controlled Congress will lift the ban on offshore drilling. Even so, the McCain campaign seems determined to make coastal drilling a major talking point for the 2008 presidential election. Sabato, of the University of Virginia, says it’s a testament to McCain’s electoral priorities.

"No candidate flip-flops unless he thinks the new position is a political winner," Sabato said, "and that he will gain more than he loses by the policy shift."

The American public will have to wait and see whether it was a smart move or an ill-fated decision.

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