April 1, 2010

Can Anyone Explain This Offshore Drilling Decision?

On the heels of one of the most active weeks in Presidential history, President Obama has confounded his supporters on the green side of the spectrum and opened up major areas of the U.S. coastline to offshore oil drilling.

The reaction to the decision has been in some cases predictable, but often surprising -- the New York Times came out in favor today. Of course key environmental leaders are dismayed (see this helpful, quality debate on the Times blog featuring varying perspectives from leading thinkers).

But I've been scratching my head and I'll admit that I'm completely confused by this decision, or at least by its timing. I can only come up with a few plausible reasons the President would support this, but none make real sense to me. Please comment and offer other reasons. Here are some lines of logic that some may support...

Answer One: President Obama, like all politicians, is 'in the pocket' of big oil and big industry.

This is way too easy an answer and is just part of the 'a pox on both your houses' attitude that's growing in the country. Yes, all politicians are beholden in different ways to different donor groups, but I don't think anybody can say with a straight face that Obama has tried to do just what some industries and donors want.

Answer Two: This is a political maneuver to buy Republican (and energy-state Dems) to the coming climate and energy bill debate.

This answer has the most currency right now. But I have two problems with its logic. First, the timing is odd. Why announce you're giving up one of your better negotiating positions before the real climate debate heats up? Why not hold that in reserve to get those votes you need? Or -- if can go out on a naive imaginary limb here -- why not hold it over the oil companies' heads to get some concessions -- like much higher fees for access, reduced subsidies elsewhere for fossil fuels, or demanding that they stop spending money on undermining climate science.

The timing just seems oddly nonstrategic, but, as environmental strategist Will Sarni pointed out (via a mini Facebook debate amongst my colleagues), it's just like the public option in health care -- Obama gave it up early on.

Second, and this should be obvious given the way health care went, Obama is not going to get any Republican votes on anything -- Senator McCain made that pretty clear by stating recently, "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year." So maybe Obama is looking to shore up weak support for cap-and-trade in the Democratic ranks -- that makes some sense.

(As a funny side note on politics, has anyone noticed that he's opened up drilling pretty much around Republican stronghold red states? It's as if he's saying, "ok, you want a world of 'drill, baby, drill'? Then you can have it on your coastlines.")

Answer Three: The President and his Interior Secretary Ken Salazar actually believe this is a good decision and will help us achieve a measure of energy independence.

This answer actually seems the most believable to me, but it seems even more odd. I'm going to vastly oversimplify the economics and market structure of fuels here, but isn't oil fundamentally a fungible, global commodity? Meaning, even if we dig off our own shores, it's not exactly like it comes only to us. We're not operating a state-run oil company. If ExxonMobil digs up the oil, it basically enters the global market, continuing our addiction to oil and propping up what Thomas Friedman calls the "petro-dictators" around the world.

And even if the oil only came to our refineries and cars, there's nowhere near enough oil out there to make us independent anyway. True energy independence -- if that's even a worthy goal -- is only feasible through distributed generation, meaning a solar panel on every roof and wind turbine in every neighborhood. That's the energy shift we need to be moving toward as fast as possible, so I hope we use the rights and tax revenue to help support renewable energy.

In the end, I suppose this decision came from a bit of all three (and mostly the latter two). I welcome your comments on other plausible reasons, and please let me know if my Econ 101 assessment of global oil markets is fundamentally off-base.

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On April 3, 2010 4:06 AM, Frank Monachello said:

Obama may be the smartest President we have had and, just as importantly, the most impatient, in his insistence that we "break out of old tired ways of thinking" that have paralyzed Washington governance in recent years. This is not calculation, this is what leadership, finally, looks like!! He qualifies offshore drilling with terms such as "in the short run" and "in ways that protect communities and the coastline". Plus, he points to the fact the he is making the largest investment ever in clean energy and bumping up automobile fuel standards. He calls Salazar, his point man on the much needed, updated, environmental impact studies on offshore drilling that will be in the equation, a "faithful and pragmatic" steward of our natural resources. Obama gets the big picture that energy policy is about the economy, national security, and the environment. Announcing offshore drilling early, innoculates him from lame Republican attempts to paint him as an extremist as the energy/climate bill debate begins to take center stage. It also gives cover to short-sighted leaders like Lindsay Graham, who Obama, Kerry, and Lieberman want onboard early. Watch and listen as the most farsighted, bold and balanced energy/climate strategy in our country's history begins to fall into place.

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