Obama to okay oil drilling off the Atlantic coast?

Will an administration that has dragged its feet for years on an oil pipeline suddenly transform the Atlantic coast into an active oil field? The Hill’s Laura Barron-Lopez reports that the Interior Department appears ready to approve drilling off the East Coast, a major change in policy for the Obama administration, and one likely to create a civil war within the Democratic Party.


Anyone want to take odds that this White House will do that? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

President Obama is moving toward opening the Atlantic Ocean to drilling, a major shift in U.S. policy that cuts against the administration’s efforts to reduce global warming. …

All signs point toward the administration giving the thumbs up to Atlantic drilling.

In June, the administration gave its strongest signal to date that the Atlantic will likely be included in Interior’s five-year lease plan for 2017-2022, by opening it up to new oil and gas exploration for the first time in 30 years.

That decision followed the Interior Department’s release of an environmental review in February, setting guidelines for seismic surveys to test Atlantic waters for potential energy sources.

“It does not look good because if he weren’t going to allow drilling then he wouldn’t have opened the Atlantic to seismic tests,” said Sara Young, a marine scientist for Oceana, a conservation group.

The politics of this push are complicated, to say the least. Interior isn’t touching the West Coast, where Democratic governors all oppose any drilling for oil despite the known reserves that exist there. The governors on the Atlantic seaboard have a mixed attitude toward it. Republican Chris Christie opposes oil exploration in offshore New Jersey, but Democrat Terry McAuliffe wants to encourage the oil industry in his state, as do both governors from the Carolinas, according to Barron-Lopez. The expansion would make sense for those governors, and would create a lot of jobs — good paying union jobs, actually, which means that the labor movement will want action on this just as it wants the Keystone XL pipeline.


However, that would pit two critical constituencies against one another, and just in time for the midterm elections. Environmental groups are working overtime to stop progress on exploration, and so are their allies in the Democratic Party:

Legislators from New Jersey and other Atlantic Coast states are pushing the Obama administration to reverse a decision to allow geologic exploration of the ocean floor from Florida to Delaware as a step toward seeking underwater oil and gas reserves.

In a letter to the head of the agency that oversees oil and gas drilling, 37 House members – all Democrats – cite the risk of an oil spill and the damage it could cause to those who make their living in commercial fishing or tourism along the coast as a reason not to drill for oil or gas.

“We are simply unwilling to accept the tremendous risks of an oil spill in the Atlantic, which would vastly outweigh any potential gains from drilling,” states the letter to Walter Cruickshank, acting director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

“I strongly disagree with President Obama’s push to increase drilling off the East Coast,” said Rep. Rush Holt of Mercer County, one of those who signed the letter. Holt, the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees domestic drilling, said an accident could endanger 320,000 jobs and $18.5 billion associated with New Jersey’s fishing and tourism industries.

Let’s put aside the relative value of the policy itself. Most people who hold opinions on it won’t be swayed with a couple of bon mots in a political analysis anyway, although it’s worth pointing out that support for offshore drilling has always been more bipartisan than its opposition. Instead, consider the idea that this administration will approve actual drilling when it has stalled the construction of a pipeline for the last several years. The Keystone XL pipeline is not only less environmentally risky than drilling, it would replace (at least in part) the much more dangerous transportation method currently in use for crude, by rail. Derailments create a big environmental impact and are much more lethal than an occasional leak from a pipeline, while a pipeline isn’t even in the same category of risk as an offshore rig.


Now, with that context, why would anyone expect the Obama administration to approve offshore drilling before the Keystone pipeline? Obama can mollify the same groups with an approval of Keystone without generating the outrage that offshore drilling would create among his base. That would also help repair some of the damage Obama has done to the US-Canada relationship as well as deny China easy access to Canadian crude. Keystone is a much easier political lift than Atlantic oil exploration, with much less chance for political blowback.

Even holding the question open, and perhaps floating a trial balloon about approval, doesn’t make a lot of sense politically. Maybe the White House is worried about Kay Hagan’s chances in North Carolina and the challenge to Mark Warner by Ed Gillespie in Virginia in attempting to show that it’s giving serious thought to offshore drilling off the coasts of those states, but it’s more likely to discourage their environmental activists if they proceed or their labor activists if they don’t. Either way, it’s a popcorn-ordering opportunity for Republicans as Obama puts more stress on a Democratic fault line just a couple of months ahead of the midterms. Just don’t expect anything else but more can-kicking from Interior, especially before the midterms, and probably for the rest of Obama’s term.

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