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

Politics and Oil

Air Date: Week of

Senator Barack Obama.(Photo: Justin Shearer)

Energy issues are center stage in Congress and on the campaign trail. The high cost of oil could push environmental concerns aside, as a push for more offshore drilling gains ground. Living on Earth's Jeff Young tells us what lies ahead in the drilling debate.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman in for Steve Curwood. Energy issues are powering the political debate both in Washington and on the campaign trail this summer. Republicans including John McCain are demanding an end to the offshore drilling moratorium, while some Democrats, including Barack Obama, say well, ‘maybe.’ Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young digs into the shifting sands of the drilling debate.

YOUNG: As recently as June Barack Obama pledged to defend the moratoria that have kept oil rigs off most U.S. shorelines for nearly 30 years. But with public opinion shifting in response to high gas prices Obama hinted to a Florida newspaper that he would support an energy compromise that expands offshore drilling. He later explained himself in this speech on energy in Lansing, Michigan:

OBAMA: While I still don’t believe that's a particularly meaningful short-term or long-term solution, what I've said is ‘I’m willing to consider it if it’s necessary to actually pass a comprehensive plan.’ I'm not interested in making the perfect the enemy of good.

YOUNG: Obama’s speech reaffirmed his commitment to clean energy alternatives. He’d invest $150 billion over a decade in wind, solar and geothermal power and make those sources supply at least 10 percent of the nation’s electricity. He’d push for more plug-in electric hybrid cars and put a cap on carbon emissions. But it was the mention of offshore drilling that got the attention. One environmental group that has endorsed Obama, Friends of the Earth Action, expressed disappointment. But Obama campaign energy advisor Elgie Holstein insists this is not a major change in Obama’s position.

(Courtesy of Department of the Interior)

HOLSTEIN: It’s certainly not a flip-flop because he has supported offshore drilling all along. It’s just in these particular states where it has been prohibited by fed, law there he’s open-minded about any arrangement provided it protects our coastlines, provided states agree, and provided that it’s part of a bigger package in which we can start moving our economy towards a more sustainable energy future that isn't so reliant upon the imported oil from the Middle East.

YOUNG: But aren’t these sort of admissions that his more conservation-oriented agenda is not really connecting with the public and he needs to try something else here?

HOLSTEIN: I don’t think so. I think what it is is a confirmation of what he has said from the beginning of this campaign- that he’s a different kind of candidate, one who is willing to reach across aisle work with both Democrats and Republicans so we can break the gridlock that paralyzed Washington.

YOUNG: The compromise Obama supports came just as Congress left for its August recess after weeks of bitter deadlock.

Five Republicans and five Democrats announced the plan to allow drilling off of the coasts of five states_a win for Republicans. It would also strip from oil companies a multi-billion dollar tax loophole_a win for Democrats. Tax breaks would instead go to help auto companies make- and consumers- buy more efficient and more alternative fuel vehicles. Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson thinks the Gang of Ten, as the Senators are called, could end the energy gridlock.

NELSON: I think we’ve changed the topic in Washington from this, uh, Shakespearean, to drill or not to drill. That’s no longer the question. What we have done is we’ve moved beyond that discussion to say you have to do it all.

Senator Barack Obama. (Photo: Justin Shearer)

YOUNG: The compromise plan would give Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia the option to allow offshore drilling. And it would bring oil exploration as close as 50 miles to Florida’s Gulf coast.

Obama may be warm to the compromise but some of his environmental supporters are not. The League of Conservation Voters endorsed Obama. But League leader Gene Karpinski says the centrists’ plan is a bad deal because it only asks for voluntary steps toward more fuel-efficient vehicles.

KARPINSKI: The kinds of potential positive steps from that compromise aren’t required as far as we've seen in the proposal so far. So if we’re going to be serious about increasing fuel economy, we need mandatory standards to make sure car companies do their job.

YOUNG: The details of that compromise will have to wait until Congress returns from its recess. And a group of pro-drilling Republicans is trying to bring them back early. They’re taking to the darkened floor of the House chamber each day in a protest, demanding a drilling vote. They even brought former House Speaker Newt Gingrich back to the Capitol to say he thinks Republicans are winning on the issue.

GINGRICH: My hunch is that back home right now there are a lot of Democrats who are tap dancing saying 'oh, gosh. I’m really kinda for more energy, I’m really kinda for more drilling.'

YOUNG: Gingrich has confidence that offshore drilling would quickly bring down gas prices. Most economic forecasts do not. The American Petroleum Institute_the oil industry’s trade group_says it would likely take seven years or more to get more oil from the coasts. And the government’s energy information agency says opening all the coastline to drilling would not significantly affect prices before the year 2030. But Gingrich is not deterred.

GINGRICH: They’re just wrong. Economists believe the minute you agree to start drilling you're going to have a decline in price that minute.

YOUNG: More than a million people signed Gingrich’s online petition called ‘drill here, drill now.’ And that slogan has become part of the stump speech for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who clearly thinks he’s tapped into a winning issue. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.

GELLERMAN: Jeff, stay with us for just a minute. How do you see this drilling debate playing out on Capitol Hill?

YOUNG: This is a serious challenge to Democrats. They’re just getting hammered over gas prices. Republicans look like they're blocking alternative energy. So come September I think this compromise proposal in the Senate will be getting a lot of attention. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told me he thinks the centrists’ plan is something he can work with.

GELLERMAN: And so what happens to the moratorium on offshore drilling?

YOUNG: So far the Democrats have avoided a vote on it. But they’ve got to vote sometime before the election because the moratorium only exists year to year and it expires at the end of September. And it’s not clear if Democrats have the votes to keep it in tact. Though, I think that again points to a compromise as a way for each side to back down from this standoff.

GELLERMAN: Thanks a lot, Jeff. You can hear more of Jeff Young's interview with Senator Obama's energy advisor and check out our campaign coverage online at L-O-E dot O-R-G.



**WEB EXTRA** Listen to an interview with Obama’s campaign energy advisor Elgie Holstein

An overview of the Senate “Gang of Ten’’ compromise energy plan

Sen. Barack Obama’s energy speech August 4th in Lansing, Michigan


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