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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Drilling for Votes

Air Date: Week of

By a narrow majority, the US House of Representatives votes in favor on offshore drilling, mindful that the fall elections are rapidly approaching. Politicians want voters to know they're doing something about high gas prices by increasing domestic energy supply. But environmentalists are betting that the public wants a different energy plan. Jeff Young reports from Washington.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios, in Somerville Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. As members of Congress head to their home districts for the July break, they seem to have one eye on the price of gas, and the other on the calendar. November 7th, Election Day, is just around the corner. And energy is shaping up as the key domestic item on voters’ minds.
Republican leaders want more offshore drilling, to increase domestic supplies of oil and natural gas. Leading democrats say Americans would be better off using more renewable fuels and conservation. Which argument will appeal more to voters who are paying near record prices at the pump? The answer could tip the balance of who controls Congress. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports from Washington.

YOUNG: For 25 years, most of the US coastline has been off limits to offshore drilling. But in a fiery debate in Congress California Republican Richard Pombo told the House of Representatives that should end.

POMBO: I’m telling you, it’s time to stop saying no. It’s time to move forward with energy policy that makes sense for all of America. Not just for a small group of special interests who want to destroy our economy.

YOUNG: And the house agreed. The close vote would end the moratorium on offshore drilling in favor of a bill that would let states decide weather or not they want oil rigs offshore.

Critics say that tilts the playing field, making it easier to allow drills than to keep them out. Democratic House leader, Nancy Pelosi of California says it’s also an unbalanced approach to energy.

PELOSI: When we talk about reducing our dependence on foreign oil, when we talk about that, we talk about alternative energy. It’s not just about drill, drill, drill.

YOUNG: But so far drilling has ruled in the house energy debate. In addition to the offshore vote, the house also voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR for oil and gas exploration. Neither bill is likely to pass the Senate. But both were symbolic victories for House members, who want to show voters they’re doing something about energy prices by increasing energy supply. Both bills were championed by Richard Pombo, who chairs the powerful committee on House resources.

POMBO: The underlying issue here is how do we increase domestic production of energy in order to meet what is a very real crisis that we’re going through. Part of that is ANWR part of it is the deep sea oil and gas exploration. Over the last 30 years we have locked up more and more of our own resources. And as a result of that have become more dependent on foreign countries for our energy.

YOUNG: Pombo’s push to open more federal land for oil and extraction wins him support from the oil and gas industry, which has given him nearly $230,000 in campaign cash. It’s also made Pombo an election-year target for environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters. League director Gene Karpinski is betting a good chunk of his groups resources on a campaign to defeat Pombo and a half dozen other lawmakers he calls the oil slick seven. Karpinski is happy to have an environmental issue foremost in people’s minds and says energy issues could be the deciding factor in many races.

KARPINSKI: This election is very intentionally going to be framed around the question of energy policy. It’s on voter’s minds. They have conversations about it every day. They’re mad about rising gas prices. They’re mad about our dependence on foreign oil. The question is which direction should we go. Should we drill and destroy our most beautiful lands? Or should we move forward with clean renewable energy policy?

YOUNG: Democrats think the energy debate could fuel their run to take control of Congress. Republicans hold the house by just 15 seats and the senate by just 6. South Carolina’s James Cliburn says democrats will use the summer to remind voters of what’s happened to energy prices with Republicans in control.

CLIBURN: We’ve got $3 for a gallon of gasoline. We’ve got 9 billion dollars in subsidies to the oil companies. And Democrats are seeking new directions for our energy program.

YOUNG: Pole after pole shows energy prices among the top voter concerns, but it’s less clear who benefits. Does a voter paying 3 bucks for a gallon of gas support a Democrat’s ideas for fuel efficiency or a Republican’s plan for more drilling?
The American Petroleum Interest put that question to some focus groups. The API lobbies for the oil and gas industry. Spokesperson Lisa Flavin says the higher the price the more willing people are to support drilling.

FLAVIN: So now what we’re seeing is a bit of a shift with the high gasoline prices people are saying “ya, you know we need to reevaluate that and we need to look to America to develop our own supplies.

YOUNG: Environmental groups say most people still don’t want offshore drilling. And they point to poles showing most Americans opposed to drilling in the Arctic Refuge. And instead favor alternative energy and more fuel-efficient cars. Sierra
Club executive director, Carl Pope, says high prices probably don’t change minds so much as draw attention to the issue.

POPE: It doesn’t fundamentally, if you look at what the public wants, the public still believes that renewable energy is much better than oil and gas. The public still doesn’t want to see more nuclear power. So, what this creates is pressure on legislators and politicians to act. Whether they act wisely or not is always the question. And what’s happening right now, is here in this town they’re not. But what high gas prices do is put the issue on the agenda.

YOUNG: If Pope is right about that, what it means is candidates will face an energized electorate and a lot of questions about how the country will satisfy its appetite for fuel. For Living On Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



Sierra Club on offshore drilling

The American Petroleum Institute on offshore drilling

Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act of 2006

League of Conservation Voters’ Dirty Dozen press release


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