Alaska and Oil: Obama’s Offshore Outrage

Source: Mother Jones

Throwing open vast swaths of the outer continental shelf to offshore drilling is the latest effort by the Obama administration to grease the way forward on comprehensive energy and climate reform. But the administration’s conciliatory approach-which has largely entailed the administration giving and its congressional opponents taking-is looking increasingly like a gamble that’s going to backfire. Meanwhile, as the president extends olive branches to his critics, he’s alienating allies in the environmental community, who say his policies are reminding them more and more of those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Some enviros are even likening Obama to Alaska’s oil-loving ex-governor, Sarah Palin.

"Is this President Obama’s clean energy plan or Palin’s drill baby drill campaign?" quipped Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Radford in a statement on Wednesday.

Under the administration’s plan, hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin territory along the eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast, and within the Arctic Ocean will soon be available. Obama has framed offshore drilling as a sweetener to draw more support for his other energy plans, such as expanding the use of renewable energy resources and putting a cap on carbon pollution. But on Wednesday Obama announced a major drilling expansion with no promise in return that opponents of his energy plans would relent in their efforts to block them.

Beginning on the campaign trail, Obama signaled that he would be willing to include drilling as part of a deal to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation. He reaffirmed that idea in his State of the Union address this year, declaring a the clean energy future will require "making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."

But so far the deal-making has been largely one-sided. The Senate remains at an impasse over climate and energy legislation. And even if Congress passes anything this year to address climate change–a big if–it’s not going to be as aggressive as Obama and his environmental supporters originally envisioned. In the pursuit of the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster, the senators hammering out the legislation have been heavily courting industry and fossil-fuel friendly senators, but to date there has been little payoff in terms of support. The administration’s announcement is just the latest concession to woo votes, say enviros. "He’s hoping it jars loose some Republican votes and quiets some of ‘drill, baby, drill’ crazies," said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program at Sierra Club. "I don’t know how this helps. This isn’t the magic wand to get to 60 votes."

So far, Obama’s gesture at bipartisanship has been met with scorn on the right. On Wednesday, John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House minority leader, fired off a statement saying that Obama’s plan did not open up enough off-shore territory for drilling and chiding him for "delaying American energy production off all our shores." Obama’s previous offering to Republicans and apprehensive Democrats, a major expansion of government support for nuclear power, was met with similar disdain.

While Obama’s overtures aren’t earning him much goodwill among detractors, his drilling plan is sure to anger the Senate’s progressive, coastal state senators, who last week fired off a missive to the senators working on a climate and energy package that said expanded off-shore drilling was a deal-breaker. New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg today condemned the plan as a "Kill, baby, kill" approach to energy policy.

Environmental advocates have been bracing for a new era of offshore extraction to commence since October 2008, when the Democratic Congress allowed the long-standing moratorium on offshore drilling to expire. (Months earlier, George W. Bush’s had lifted an executive order baning off-shore driliing that was put in place by his father.) Despite promises at the time to return to the issue and restore protections under a Democratic president,  congressional Democrats have not followed through. And Obama has moved in quite the opposite direction, choosing to open areas that had been protected for 18 years under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

Environmentalists may have been anticipating an announcement on off-shore drilling, but the plan the administration unveiled was far worse than they expected. "We had been hearing that they were going to release the plan, and had been told we weren’t going to like it, but we don’t like it even more than we thought we would," said Anna Aurilio, director of the DC office of Environment America.

Environmentalists are not just angry that Obama is giving away the store on oil and gas drilling, they also feel that he’s basing his decision on a dubious premise-that more drilling will enhance the nation’s energy security. The US currently imports 57 percent of its oil, according to the Energy Information Administration. The nation accounts for 23 percent of total world oil consumption, but has only 3 percent the world’s oil reserves within its borders. Drilling off every coast in the US won’t resolve that issue. Even the most productive portion of the area opened to drilling, the eastern Gulf, is expected to yield only 3.5 billion barrels of oil. The US consumes 19.5 million barrels of oil per day, which means that these wells would only produce about 180 days worth of oil. And at current global oil prices, recoverable American-produced petroleum isn’t likely to be cost-competive.

"You could look for oil everywhere in United States and you wouldn’t find enough to reduce the price at the pump and improve energy independence," said the Sierra Club’s Manuel. "It’s fantasy to say this is going to increase our energy security or make us more energy independent … We’ve tried for 30 years to drill our way out of this problem, and it’s never ever worked."

For envionmentalists, there were a few pieces of good news in Obama’s plan. The administration has decided to protect Bristol Bay, an environmentally sensitive area of the Bering Sea in southwest Alaska. Also off-limits to drilling are the entire Pacific Coast and the Atlantic Coast from New Jersey north. The administration also pledged to double the federal fleet of hybrid vehicles, and on Thursday is expected to unveil new automobile fuel economy standards that are anticipated to cut oil use 11.6 billion gallons per year by 2016.

These positive developments did little to appease Obama’s supporters in the environmental community, for whom his announcement was not just a blow but a betrayal. "I woke up this morning, listened to radio, and thought I had woken up back under the Bush administration," said Environment America’s Aurilio.

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones’ Washington bureau. For more of her stories, click here. She Tweets here.