On U.S. coasts, a rethink on oil drilling?

High gas prices may soften the opposition of some states to offshore drilling.

SOURCE: US Minerals Management Service/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

When Sen. John McCain visits Santa Barbara, Calif., next week, Charles Eckberg will be there to protest the Republican presidential candidate's calls to lift the federal ban on US offshore drilling.

Mr. Eckberg, a grass-roots activist, remembers the 1969 spill off the coast of Santa Barbara that galvanized the state and the nation to halt fresh drilling. The ocean was so laden with oil that the waves crashed ashore silently, he says.

Now, Eckberg is concerned that "people are going to say, 'Let's do this because of the gas prices.' "

Voter frustration with dependence on foreign oil and $4-a-gallon gas have primed political pumps for more domestic drilling. Despite the national support for drilling, the politically blue coasts hold a virtual veto in Congress. But experts say all the attention on the issue could push some of the more conservative coastal states to lift their own moratoriums.

"There's a good chance we'll see some of the moratoriums lifted in the next few years," says Eric Smith, an environmental politics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "Because of [Bush and McCain's] leadership, offshore oil drilling has appeared as a major environmental issue, and we'll be debating it for a while."

State moratoriums cover the first few miles off the shores, and federal moratoriums extend those to 200 miles out. Offshore drilling is allowed in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and some grandfathered pockets off California.

President Bush echoed Senator McCain Wednesday, urging Congress to lift the federal moratorium.

California is unlikely to budge on its ban, but more conservative Southern states including Florida might, says Dr. Smith. Californians, by a 52-to-41 margin, oppose drilling off their coast, according to a July 2007 Public Policy Institute of California poll taken before gas prices started increasing.

Republican governors of the two states have taken opposite tacks: California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes lifting the moratoriums, while Florida's Gov. Charlie Crist now supports it.

Governor Crist's position is a stark reversal for the governor, who is seen as a possible vice presidential pick. The decision puts him at odds with Floridians who derive the bulk of their livelihoods from the beaches.

"This would break ranks with all previous governors as long as I can remember," said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon Florida. "He is squandering his green credentials on this issue."

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.

"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.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.