Southern governors to Jewell: Drill, baby, drill

With Ken Salazar stepping down as Interior Secretary, politicians of both parties in Southern states see an opportunity to get more cooperation from Washington in unlocking energy reserves off their coast.  Governors in three states signed a letter asking Sally Jewell, nominated to replace Salazar, to allow them to open oil and natural gas reserves to produce more American energy:

The governors of South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia are pushing President Barack Obama’s choice for interior secretary to abandon federal opposition to drilling off the Atlantic Coast, where production has been blocked for decades.

“During your nomination hearings, we will be listening intently to your answers regarding energy exploration off the coasts of our states and hope you will signal your willingness to revise the administration’s current policy to one that is committed to safely harnessing our coast’s vast natural resources,” the three Republican governors wrote in a letter Thursday to nominee Sally Jewell.

The White House didn’t respond to a request for an interview with Jewell, a conservation advocate whom Obama chose to replace Ken Salazar. She’ll soon undergo her confirmation hearings by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

It’s questionable how much the Atlantic drilling issue will factor into her confirmation. Republicans on the committee, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, favor drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. But most of them are from Western states, and they’re more likely to grill Jewell on public land issues closer to their constituents. There’s also the fact that Democrats control the Senate and the committee’s chairman, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, has no problem with Obama’s reluctance to drill in the Atlantic.

This may seem like a pointless gesture to any nominee from Barack Obama, but there is some reason to hope for a rational response.  Jewell, currently the CEO of outdoor-sports retailer REI, has extensive experience in the oil industry.  First, she spent three years working for Mobil, and then the next twenty in the banking industry as an expert on oil-industry lending.  At the same time, though, Jewell is a dedicated conservationist, and of course Obama’s policies will be what Jewell will have to put into effect.

In that sense, she embodies the kind of tension that Obama himself is now experiencing in another oil issue.  Byron York writes about the vise in which the President finds himself over the upcoming decision on the Keystone XL pipeline:

A brief moment on Wednesday showed why President Obama can’t win when it comes to the Keystone XL pipeline. In front of the White House, protesters led by actress Daryl Hannah and the head of the Sierra Club demanded that Obama kill the project. Just a few blocks away, the head of the AFL-CIO’s powerful Building and Construction Trades Department joined with the American Petroleum Institute to demand that Obama approve it.

Obama’s friends in the environmental movement and Hollywood on one side. Obama’s friends in Big Labor allied with his enemies in Big Oil on the other. What’s a Democratic president to do?

Both sides were unhappy that Obama, who took the time to talk about wind power, solar power, fuel efficiency, global warming and all sorts of other related topics in his State of the Union speech, did not mention Keystone at all. Not a single word.

Public support for the project remains high, however, and the economy could use the boost the big project — and the cheaper oil — would bring.  The issue has brought together the labor movement and the oil industry, which wants to promote Keystone for its economic benefits to workers and consumers.  With that kind of pressure, Obama may have no choice but to say yes:

Given that pressure, and especially given the new fact of a safer route for the pipeline, it’s hard to see Obama saying no. But so far, the president just can’t face his environmental and Hollywood allies with the bad news. Even when they come to the White House to see him.

I’d bet that Jewell gets the tough task of announcing the approval of the pipeline.  That may mean, though, that the Southern governors get told no in order to demonstrate some resolve for the benefit of those Hollywood environmentalists.