On U.S. coasts, a rethink on oil drilling?
High gas prices may soften the opposition of some states to offshore drilling.
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New drilling in Florida would add jobs and infuse the state economy with oil leasing money, says David Mica, director of the Florida Petroleum Council. He expects high gas prices and a desire for energy independence to help change minds.Skip to next paragraph
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"I've seen a sea of change that actually began in 2004 when there were supply disruptions to Florida," he said.
Public attitudes do shift with the price of gas. Support among Californians for offshore oil has closely tracked along with gas prices, says Smith.
With gas price momentum at his back, Mr. Bush said he would remove a presidential moratorium by decree if Congress lifts its own. A new Rasmussen poll, prior to the Bush and McCain proposals, found 67 percent of voters supportive of more offshore drilling.
Congress has its own inertia, however.
"Where Democrats in particular are entrenched – coastal areas, California, and the Eastern Seaboard – I don't know how much they or the voters in their districts are going to be moved off this issue," says Chris Bosso, a political science professor at Northeastern University.
The Senate filibuster option makes such strong regional interests difficult to overcome. Even at the height of Bush's popularity, with Republican control of Congress, and concerns about the Middle East front-and-center, the president failed to open drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), points out Dr. Bosso.
"When gasoline went over $3 a gallon, a lot of people said that this is it, this is the price point when ANWR will be opened. But it didn't, and part of that is the structure of the Senate," he says.
The political impact of $4-a-gallon gas on this debate may depend on whether voters see drilling as symbolic, or something that would reduce pump prices soon, he adds.
The Department of Interior's Mineral Management Services (MMS) estimates there are 18 billion barrels of oil offshore under federal moratorium and another 10 billion to 12 billion in ANWR.
Richard Carter, with the Defenders of Wildlife, argues that any new drilling would take at least 10 years to pump, and then only knock a couple cents off pump prices. There's no need to lift moratoriums when the oil industry is sitting on 33 billion acres of offshore leases they haven't developed, he adds.
A lot of undeveloped leases may not have a lot of resources, counters H. Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis in Washington. He argues that expanding drilling in US waters would add to the pool of oil from stable, reliable sources – helping curb speculation. He says opponents of drilling overestimate the time frame for new development, and some projects have turned around in 18 months.
As for environmental impact, each year 47 million gallons of oil seep out naturally into US ocean waters. That far exceeds the 870,000 gallons of petroleum leaked in offshore exploration and drilling, according to the National Academies of Sciences.
Natural leakage is less damaging to wildlife, says Mr. Carter, and spills still occur with frequency.