Is it just me, or is the past getting past faster than ever before? It wasn’t that long ago—a little more than a year and a half—that President Obama stood at Andrews Air Force Base and outlined an ambitious energy deal. Greens would get the carbon cap-and-trade legislation they had been working for since the start of his time in office, but conservatives and those in oil-producing states would win a significant expansion of offshore drilling, opening up previously closed areas like the eastern Gulf of Mexico, parts of the Atlantic coast and the northern shore of Alaska. As I wrote at the time, the speech was “prime Obama, splitting the differences on a problem that has divided the U.S. right down the middle.”
The President himself said then:
We need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure-all and those who claim it has no place. This issue is just too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again.
A little thing called the Deepwater Horizon oil spill ensured that plan would never become a reality, leaving the White House to put the brakes on more offshore drilling—even as cap-and-trade legislation died in the Senate. The oil spill put the lie to the argument that drilling could be expanded—especially into sensitive and valuable waters—without much risk, but it also ensured that neither side would be interested in compromising.
Now, with the Gulf oil spill overshadowed by countless other crises—if not forgotten by those who lived through it—the White House on November 8 announced a new plan to expand offshore drilling. It’s less ambitious this time around, but it still expands the waters where oil companies will be allowed to lease territory and drill, expanding in Alaskan coast and the Gulf of Mexico. But it keeps the Atlantic coastal waters off-limits to drilling, as well as the eastern Gulf, while going slow in the Alaskan Arctic.
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As Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters:
We don’t believe that we ought to open up every single place and look under every single rock for oil and gas production. We need to drill in the right places, with the right protection.
Although the American Petroleum Institute—not exactly a bunch of tree-hugging hippies—called the policy a “good first step,” many Republicans and even some Democrats were unhappy with the remaining limitations. From Republican Doc Hastings, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee:
The Obama Administration’s draft plan places some of the most promising energy resources in the world off-limits and indefinitely abandons the scheduled lease sale off the coast of Virginia that was supposed to take place last year. No new drilling or new lease sales will occur during President Obama’s term in office – despite the overwhelming support of the American people for new offshore energy production.
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Meanwhile environmentalists were concerned at best—especially by the fact that the Alaskan Arctic, ever so slowly, will apparently be drilled. As Marilyn Heiman, the head of the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. Arctic Program, put it:
“the Arctic is extremely fragile and remote… this is a very perilous and dangerous proposal.”
“We are not opposed to drilling in the Arctic Ocean,” she told AFP, but there “should be key limits” so that it does not negatively impact marine animals, fish and communities.
“There needs to be a very surgical approach” in deciding where drilling can be done. “There’s no proven technique to cleaning up oil in ice,” she added.
Just in case you weren’t aware of how dangerous drilling in the Arctic might be, nature seems to have sent a reminder—what the National Weather Service is calling the “Bering Sea Superstorm” is bearing down on Alaska, bringing gusts of more than 90 mph and storm surges of 8 to 10 feet. And while major storms are of course no stranger to the Gulf of Mexico—where the U.S. has been drilling oil for decades—the isolation and harsh climate of the Arctic would almost certainly magnify any mistake, and make it that much tougher to clean up.
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In the White House’s defense, any lease sales in Alaska would be held late in the 2012 to 2017 period covered by yesterday’s announcement—theoretically giving the government time for more due diligence, as deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes put it:
The approach we are taking there is a cautious one. We are aware of the substantial issues associated with major production.
Nonetheless, Obama has set a target of reducing U.S. oil imports by a third by 2025, and greater domestic oil production is going to have to be a part of that—including oil from the Arctic. Unfortunately for the President, no one’s likely to cheer him. Conservatives and the oil industry won’t be happy until just about every square foot of the country is available for drilling—though it is worth noting that oil production offshore has actually increased under Obama—and environmentalists aren’t going to rally to support any sort of expanded drilling. With energy, as with so many other issues for Obama, it’s lonely at the center.
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