Will the Oil Reach Washington? The Spill's Political Effects

Some Officials Are Changing Course, While Others Maintain Drilling is Needed

As the oil continues to gush from the leaking well 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, it comes as little surprise that political support for expanding oil and natural gas drilling is waning.

Only a few weeks removed from President Obama's decision to open up vast expanses to offshore exploration along the East Coast, and the fervor to recover undersea fossil fuels is suddenly getting lost in the oily slick washing ashore in Louisiana.

As the images of oil-covered birds start flooding the Internet, the public discourse will likely shift against new drilling, at least momentarily. But will political conversation on the topic really change?

"I think it already has," said Jacqueline Savitz, a senior campaign director at Oceana, a Washington D.C.-based marine conservation group. "I think [the spill] is definitely changing the tenor of the discussion.

"There was a moratorium in place for over 25 years, and it disappeared in 2008 amid the 'drill baby drill' fervor around the election," Stativz told SolveClimate. "I think we can now look back on that and see it as a mistake, and I think more people are starting to do that," she added.

Whitehouse: Safety Before New Drilling

A week after BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, the Obama administration jumped on the issue, saying that no new oil drilling leases will be issued until better safety measures are in place.

While no new leases are due to be issued in the near future, the offshore drilling plans announced at the end of March would open up hundreds of millions of acres along the Atlantic Coast, in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas near Alaska to potential oil and gas exploration.

In his own remarks on Friday, the president offered little in the way of concrete promises. He said he still believes that "domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security," but said "it must be done responsibly for the safety of our workers and our environment."

For some advocates, however, putting a hold on the leases is not enough.

"We actually think [the Obama administration] should go a step further and reinstate the moratorium on offshore drilling," Savitz said.

"We've said all along that offshore drilling is a dirty and dangerous business, and we've talked about the potential for spills," she added. "It's the industry that's been saying that it's safe, and I think this really shows that the industry has been wrong about that, whether intentionally or not."

Mike Brune, executive director of environmental group Sierra Club, said the "disaster changes everything."

"It's time to take offshore drilling off the table for good," Brune said in a statement.

"This offshore facility was supposed to be state-of-the-art," Brune added. "We've been assured again and again that the hundreds of offshore drilling rigs along our beaches are completely safe. Now, we've seen workers tragically killed." 

Support wavering?

Elsewhere on the political landscape, at least one high-profile drilling supporter has backed off. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist had previously supported offshore drilling if it were deemed safe and far enough from shore. But after a long flight over the spreading oil slick he changed his course.

"It's clearly not clean enough after we saw what we saw today—that's horrific—and it certainly isn't safe enough," Crist told the Associated Press. "It's the opposite of safe."

Other drilling proponents are not backing down, though. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has been among the more vocal supporters of expanding offshore drilling. Landrieu's home state of Louisiana is fourth in terms of oil production, and first if the federal offshore areas are included. She sees no reason to change that in the face of a major accident.

"No one has ever claimed—including myself, who's an unabashed proponent of the industry—that drilling is risk free," Landrieu said in a speech on the Senate floor last Thursday.

"We must react to this disaster in a measured, but right way. We must apply the lessons of past tragedies to this one, so we can make the best and wisest decisions that will instruct us about how to move forward. I don't believe we can react in fear. I don't believe that we should retreat," Landrieau said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, the sole Republican architect of the yet-to-be-unveiled Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate and energy bill, took a similar line.  

Graham was quoted in the Greenville News, a South Carolina paper, as saying that "it would be irresponsible to halt offshore drilling."

"The biggest beneficiaries of this proposal to stop drilling would be overseas oil interests, OPEC and regimes that don't like us very much," Graham reportedly said.

Tale of Two Offshore Resources

The slow-moving environmental disaster sits in sharp contrast to a very different milestone achieved last week, when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar approved the controversial Cape Wind project to build 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts.

The project had been delayed for more than nine years over complaints about the visual impact and potential environmental damage of the turbines.

"I hope [the spill] will help solidify an approach where we do something similar to offshore drilling, like offshore wind, which provides us with a lot of energy, ultimately less expensively," Savitz said. 

Around five proposed sites for offshore wind farms exist up and down the Atlantic Coast, as well as in both Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. But if Cape Wind begins construction this year, as Secretary Salazar has pledged, it would be the first of its kind in the country.

Europe, in contrast, has more than 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity already installed, with another 1,000 slated to come online in the coming years, according to the European Wind Association. This week, Germany's first 12 offshore turbines began churning out power some 28 miles off the North Sea coast.

"If you step back now that we've seen the worst case scenario of what offshore drilling can do, and really put the two things up next to each other, it's really hard to see why extending drilling is a better answer," Savitz said.

Climate Legislation Effects

The changes in the political stance on offshore drilling also come at a time when the long-awaited Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill has apparently been sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for review, prior to debate in the Senate.

If the draft legislation contains provisions for moving forward with offshore drilling, seen as a concession by green groups, its fate could be sealed, some officials say.

The bill would be "dead on arrival," Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fl.) told MSNBC on Thursday.

If Sen. Nelson is right, it represents a turnaround from what most likely would not have been a sticking point before the oil rig explosion occurred.

"Now that we see it, how can we not act accordingly, how can we not say 'let's stop doing this?'" said Savitz.

"We have alternatives. It's almost an I-told-you-so moment, but you don't want to have to say I told you so on something like this."

See also:

Offshore Drilling Move Muddies Obama's Relationship to Oil and Gas

If Sen. Graham Bails, Is There a Climate and Energy Backup Plan?

5 Green Groups Declare Senate Climate Bill 'Unacceptable'

Taking Climate Bill Straight to Senate Floor Could Open Window for 'Cap-and-Dividend'

Offshore Oil Drilling Debate Renewed in Senate Hearing

(Photo via the U.S. Coast Guard)

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