By calling for an end to the federal ban on offshore oil drilling, John McCain is placing a risky bet. He is wagering that skyrocketing gas prices have finally reached a tipping point, a threshold moment that will led voters to rethink their strong and long-held opinions against coastal oil exploration.
The stakes couldn’t be higher: If he is wrong, McCain will have seriously damaged his chances in two key states with thousands of miles of coastline — California and Florida — where opposition to offshore drilling for oil has been unwavering. And he will have undermined some of his closest political allies in those states and others — including potential fall battlegrounds such as Virginia and North Carolina.
“Before $4.25 per gallon gas, this would have been like pulling a pin on a grenade and rolling it into the state,” said David Johnson, the former executive director of the Florida Republican Party. “It would have been a fool’s errand to recommend it. It was never, ever a thing that a smart politician would have done in Florida.”
In California, the drilling issue is just as volatile, said Sal Russo, a veteran Sacramento-based Republican consultant.
“California got really sensitive about these issues since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. And I don’t think it’s changed much since then,” he said. “There are strong feelings on the issue.”
Indeed, an overwhelming 64-percent-majority of Californians opposed opening up more of the state’s coast to oil drilling, according to a February 2006 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, a figure that was up 14 percentage points from 2004.
“Overall, the state has been clearly on record, from the governor on down, as strongly opposing offshore drilling,” said Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), who represents a Santa Barbara-based coastal district which is home to some of the state’s most vocal drilling resistance.
But that was before the latest gas price spike in two states heavily dependent on automobiles.
State Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa, a Northern California Republican who favors offshore drilling, acknowledged drilling would be a tough political lift but said rising prices may be a mitigating factor.
“Traditionally in California it’s very difficult to move anything that even hints of being an environmentally sensitive issue. ... But people are sick and tired of creeping up to $5 gas. Will $5 a gallon be enough? $6? $7?” he said. ”If [McCain] can articulate that we can safely and responsibly do this kind of exploration offshore, and that will lower gas prices, and help national security, reasonable people would buy that notion.”
Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) also brushed off concerns that calls to lift the oil drilling moratorium could alienate environmentally minded independent voters.
“I don’t see it as a problem. In paying $4 a gallon for gas, the American people have come to realize we’ve got to get oil for ourselves,” said Myrick, who recently introduced legislation that would overturn a long-standing moratorium on drilling for oil and gas off the Atlantic Coast. “Everybody wants clean beaches. I certainly would not do anything that was going to destroy anything.”
Myrick and others pointed to a new Rasmussen Reports survey — conducted before McCain announced his proposal on Monday — which found that 67 percent of voters believed drilling should be allowed off the coasts of California, Florida and other states. Only 18 percent disagreed and 15 percent were undecided. According to the poll, conservative and moderate voters strongly support offshore drilling, while liberals are more evenly divided — 46 percent of liberals favor drilling, 37 percent oppose it.
National surveys, however, can fail to take into account the fierce resistance to ofshore oil drilling in the states that stand to be affected.
“We have 1,300 square miles of coastline here and our whole culture and identity is tied to our coastline,” said Holly Binns, field director for Environment Florida, an environmental advocacy group that opposes offshore oil drilling. “This is a state where if you don’t understand how deep the connections are to our identity and our culture, you could step on a landmine. This could be one of those cases.”
Already, one politician appears to have done that. After opposing drilling during his successful 2006 election campaign, Gov. Charlie Crist (R-Fla.) is drawing the ire of environmentalists for appearing to back off from his position in recent days. He told reporters Tuesday that his position was evolving and that he now supports exploratory drilling for oil and gas off Florida’s coast because “Floridians are suffering.”
“When you’re paying over $4 a gallon for gas, you have to wonder whether there might be additional resources to bring that price down,” Crist said.
Crist, who is frequently mentioned as a prospective running mate for McCain, is not the only politician inconvenienced by McCain’s stance.
“I’m trying to clarify my position,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.). “In Florida today most voters probably want more drilling.”
But Martinez quickly cautioned that Florida would need to be protected by the larger buffer zone mandated in 2006 legislation that promised Florida a 125-mile barrier from offshore drilling. The current federal moratorium on drilling is just 50 miles.
“I want to have more detail, but my hope is [McCain] will understand the need to maintain the law as we passed it in 2006, which gives Florida a 125-mile buffer,” Martinez said. “The rest of it I can probably live with. It’s about providing enough resources where the states want to do it and permit it.”
McCain’s proposal to end the moratorium, coupled with a Tuesday speech in Houston in which he broke with many of the environmental policies of the Bush administration, sparked a fierce back and forth with Barack Obama’s campaign on energy policy.
McCain knocked Obama for proposing “a windfall profits tax on oil, to go along with the new taxes he also plans for coal and natural gas. If the plan sounds familiar, it’s because that was President Jimmy Carter’s big idea too — and a lot of good it did us.”
But in May, McCain said he would consider the same proposal.
“His decision to completely change his position and tell a group of Houston oil executives exactly what they wanted to hear today was the same Washington politics that has prevented us from achieving energy independence for decades,” the Obama campaign said in a statement.