Barack Obama Reverses Campaign Promise and Approves Offshore Drilling
President allows oil and gas exploration off several coastal areas to
horsetrade with Republicans over climate change bills
by Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
the Guardian/UK: March 31, 2010
Barack Obama took the Republican slogan "drill, baby, drill" as his own
today, opening up over 500,000 square miles of US coastal waters to oil and
gas exploitation for the first time in over 20 years.
The move, a reversal of Obama's early campaign promise to retain a ban on
offshore exploration, appeared aimed at winning support from Republicans in
Congress for new laws to tackle global warming. Sarah Palin's "Drill, baby,
drill" slogan was a prominent battle cry in the 2008 elections.
The areas opened up are off the Atlantic coast, the northern coast of Alaska
and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. However, in a concession to his
environmentalist base, Obama did retain protection for Alaska's Bristol Bay,
the single largest source of seafood in America and home to endangered
species of whale. The Pacific Coast from Mexico to Canada is also
Obama said the decision to allow oil rigs off the Atlantic coast was a
painful one, but that it would help reduce US dependence on imported oil.
"This is not a decision that I've made lightly," the president said. "But
the bottom line is this: given our energy needs, in order to sustain
economic growth, produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we're
going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up
production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."
He said the administration would take steps to protect the environment and
areas important to tourism off the Atlantic, as well as sensitive areas in
the Arctic, and added: "Drilling alone cannot come close to meeting our
long-term energy needs, and for the sake of the planet and our energy
independence, we need to begin the transition to cleaner fuels now."
Interior department officials said the areas opened up today are thought to
contain the equivalent of three years' annual US useage of recoverable oil
and two years' worth of natural gas.
Under the proposals, a vast swath of Atlantic coast from northern Delaware
to central Florida, including about 167m acres of ocean, would be open to
drilling. An additional 130m acres of ocean in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas
north of Alaska could also open up for drilling following environmental
assessment studies. About two-thirds of the eastern Gulf of Mexico would be
open for exploration though the plan would bar rigs within 125 miles of the
The state of Virginia could see drilling within 50 miles of the coast, and
could issue its first licences as early as next year. However, actual
drilling would probably not get underway for years. Drilling would be
off-limits throughout the US Pacific coast. Bristol Bay in south-western
Alaska would also be off the table until 2017.
Today's speech was widely seen as an attempt by Obama to use last week's
epic victory on health reform as a springboard for other items on his
agenda. He combined the announcement with a renewed appeal to Democrats and
Republicans in Congress to pass climate change legislation. The laws would
be a huge step forward towards a global deal but has encountered fierce
A small group of Democrats and Republicans are expected to produce proposals
to cut the US's mammoth greenhouse gas emissions, in the coming weeks. But
the proposals are unlikely to go as far as environmentalists would like.
The interior secretary, Ken Salazar, made a significant declaration today,
saying the administration had renounced the concept of carbon cap and trade.
This system, seen by many as efficient and effective, sets a gradually
reducing limit to emissions and then allows polluters to buy and sell
permits to emit greenhouse gases, but opponents argue it would damage the
economy. "The term cap and trade is not in the lexicon anymore," Salazar
told CNBC television.
The go-ahead for drilling is also a bitter disappointment for
environmentalists and Democrats. That could make it even more difficult to
stitch together a compromise proposal on climate change in the Senate. Last
week, 10 Senators from coastal states, including those now opened up for
drilling, issued a letter expressing concern that offshore exploration would
hurt fishing and tourism industries.
Maryland's Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, a supporter of Obama's climate
agenda, said: "We know spills happen with offshore drilling. It happens even
with the most responsible drilling." Greenpeace saw the announcement as a
betrayal of Obama's campaign promise, with director Phil Radford saying:
"This act furthers America's addiction to oil." Oceana called it a
"wholesale assault" on the seas.
Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at the Centre for Biological Diversity,
said: "Today's announcement is unfortunately all too typical of what we have
seen so far from President Obama - promises of change, a year of
'deliberation,' and ultimately, adoption of flawed and outdated Bush
policies as his own."
The disappointment could lift on Thursday, as Obama said his administration
would then finalise more rigorous fuel economy standards for cars and
trucks. The White House will also buy 5,000 new hybrid vehicles for the
Today's drilling decision further consolidates Obama's position in the
middle ground between industry and environmentalists. Environmentalists have
been disappointed with the president's decisions to restrict - but not ban
outright - the highly destructive practice of blowing up mountaintops to
mine thin seams of coal.
Obama indicated in his state of the union address that he was ready to offer
two key concessions to Republicans - lifting the ban on offshore drilling
and supporting new nuclear power plants - to try to gain support for climate
change and energy legislation in Congress.
He took the first step last month, spurring the first construction of new
nuclear plants since the Three Mile Island leak 30 years ago, by announcing
$18bn in loan guarantees for two new nuclear reactors.
As a presidential candidate, Obama had repeatedly attacked his opponent,
John McCain, for suggesting drilling would lower gas prices, arguing that it
would take several years and billions in investment before those areas
became productive. But as the summer of 2008 wore on with prices spiking at
the pump, Obama along with other Democrats began moderating their opposition
to offshore drilling.
Democrats in Congress did not renew an annual ban on offshore drilling, and
Obama began reversing his opposition.
© 2010 Guardian/UK