Obama's Offshore Drilling Plan: A Hail Mary Pass to Save the Climate Bill

Last Updated Mar 31, 2010 4:54 PM EDT

President Obama's plan to open up the Atlantic coast and parts of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas drilling has been couched as a broad approach to weaning Americans off foreign fossil fuels. But rest assured, there's plenty of political maneuvering behind the announcement, including an attempt to throw the Republicans a few bones in hopes of getting some support for climate-change legislation.

Whether it works is another question. The risky strategy threatens to piss off some of Obama's biggest supporters; at the same time, there's no guarantee it will be attractive to the right Republicans. Especially considering the much-anticipated compromise bill being drafted by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., hasn't even been introduced yet. It's hard to start the horse trading when you don't know whether you're haggling over a pony, mule or a Triple Crowner. Meaning, we may not know if Obama's offshore drilling plan will sway anyone until the climate bill is released next month.

Under the plan, areas that have been under a longstanding drilling moratorium would be open to exploration and production. Among them, eastern Gulf of Mexico, which would allow drilling within 125 miles of Florida's coast; as well as in the Atlantic ocean from central Florida up to the northern end of Delaware.Two lease sales -- one 50 miles off the coast of Virginia and another in the Cook Inlet in Alaska -- are already planned for 2012. The Department of Interior also will open up nearly 130 million acres in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic Ocean to oil and gas exploration once studies of the area are completed.

The Interior is closing off several areas to any exploration, including the entire Pacific coast from Mexico to Canada and Bristol Bay in Alaska, an environmentally sensitive area that includes migratory routes of endangered whales.

Obama knows the plan is going to anger certain groups. Environmentalist groups, for example, are a given. International organization Oceana called the offshore drilling plan an early April fool's joke. Obama is betting that in the end, the eco groups will come around because above everything else, they'd like climate-change legislation to pass. Plus, support from environmentalists has already dropped off ever since the president moved to an "all of the above" approach to energy. A far more crucial group are Democrats impacted by offshore drilling. Ten Senate Democrats from coastal states warned in a letter last week they won't support a climate bill if it involves expanding offshore drilling.

So, how do you keep their support? Technically, the plan to expand offshore drilling comes from the Obama administration, not the climate bill itself. As long as offshore drilling language included in the compromise climate bill doesn't further expand into coastal areas, support should remain intact.

Plus, not all of those Democrats will be unhappy with the offshore drilling plan. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkeley of Oregon won't see any drilling off their coast. Nor will Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey or the senators from Rhode Island.

That leaves Democratic senators from Maryland, Delaware and Florida, who signed the letter, left in the mix. At least one, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, has already given some cautious support for the plan. However, in a statement released Wednesday, Nelson noted his concern about oil rigs and their proximity to military operations.

Now I need to hear from Defense Secretary Robert Gates. I want him to look me in the eye and tell me it will not compromise national security by interfering with the unfettered space we have for training and testing our most sophisticated weapons systems.
So what about the oil industry and Republicans? Oil companies seem to be A-OK with the idea. Of course, they'd like to see an even greater expansion down the road. And they're are some Republicans, notably Graham, who will be pleased with the plan since it will open up areas off his state. But is this going to secure any votes? Probably not. Consider Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Rep. John Boehner of Ohio.

Cantor is pleased with the plan, but like Boehner, the top House Republican, spends most of his time lashing out at what the plan doesn't include, namely the West Coast and in the Arctic. Boehner went further, saying the administration "continues to defy the will of the American people." They both go on to talk about how expanded oil drilling is needed since gas prices are rising. On a side note: Don't get me started about this never-ending comparison used by politicians on both sides. To be clear, announcing plans to expand drilling offshore will have no impact on gas prices this summer. Zip. Zero.

Maybe Boehner and Cantor are playing right into the hands of Obama and his pursuit of a climate-change bill. As TNR's Bradford Plumer also notes, maybe that's part of the strategy -- "offer an olive branch and watch Republicans swat it down and look unreasonable." Still, that's seems awfully risky when the passage of a bill is on the line. And even if they look unreasonable, who really cares? They can still vote yes or no.

Photo of football in the grass is from Flickr user Jayel Aheram, CC 2.0 Map of expanded offshore drilling from the Department of Interior