Obama and offshore drilling: a crude move

President Obama tried to make a skillful political decision by permitting some offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. But he's obscured a more important message: The US must leave oil behind.

President Obama’s decision to open large areas off the US coastline for offshore drilling of oil and natural gas mixes a blob of political calculation with a dollop of questionable energy policy. The resulting sludge looks unappealing.

The president aims to win over at least a few Senate Republicans to pending energy and greenhouse-gas-cutting legislation by giving them something they want: a more aggressive search for domestic fossil fuels. But the early reaction from the GOP was tepid, at best. There’s no evidence yet that this compromise will move a single vote.

For environmentalists, the plan protects environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay, Alaska, as well as the entire Pacific coast. But those concessions failed to satisfy much of that constituency.

In 1969, off Santa Barbara, Calif., 3 million gallons of crude oil bubbled up from the seabed after a blowout on an oil-drilling platform. It spread into an 800-square-mile slick that coated more than 30 miles of coastline with black sludge. With improved technologies and techniques, the chance of an offshore oil spill has diminished considerably. But the possibility will always remain.

It’s too soon to know how meaningful any new offshore oil finds will be. Estimates vary widely. The areas must be analyzed using modern exploration techniques. But at best they would be a thin new cushion on the bumpy road to America’s inevitable postoil future. Any new finds are unlikely to ever significantly lower gas prices at the pump or provide a meaningful percentage of US oil needs.

Nor will any new offshore wells come on line anytime soon. It could take many years for them to be fully up and producing, as Mr. Obama admitted.

The president himself seemed to acknowledge that he was offering an awkward compromise. “This is not a decision I’ve made lightly,” he said.

Recognizing the hit he’d take with environmentalists, Obama tried to shine up his green credentials by announcing the new drilling while standing in front of a Navy F-18 fighter that will be making a demonstration flight on the Fourth of July fueled partly by biofuels. And he simultaneously announced higher fuel-economy standards for autos and some trucks, a move that he said would save 1.8 billion barrels of oil between 2012 and 2016.

His wearing of the green while talking crude oil symbolizes the mixed message this decision sends. Ironically, to woo support for a bill that would cut greenhouse gases, he’s backed a measure that promotes more production of a fuel that creates them.

His offshore drilling decision may play well with the public this summer if gasoline prices spike. But that’s short-term political thinking, as was the idea that a weak compromise on oil drilling might bring Republicans strongly behind energy and climate-change legislation.

His message has been that the United States must and will move at full speed toward a postoil economy, both to blunt climate problems and to secure the nation’s energy and national security future.

This decision puts an oily smudge on what needs to be a clear national policy.

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