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Mar 312010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

With President Obama’s announcement this afternoon that he supports opening vast new areas to offshore oil and gas drilling, it is certain that environmentalists will react. But how?

Some will attack the president’s grating tendency to appease oil interests, as he has already done with the coal and nuclear industries. (And what old-energy concern is even left to mollify now?)

But don’t expect a knee-jerk, across the board negative reaction. Some groups may play along, in the hope that offshore oil and gas leases will never really materialize as proposed – it will be expensive to drill, and in some areas, the amount of accessible oil may not be worth the trouble.

They may see Obama as employing a tactic somewhat akin to telling your youngster he can go ahead and climb the big tree, knowing he’ll only get so far.

Others who might otherwise vigorously oppose offshore drilling may hope that the inevitable fight in states such as Florida where offshore drilling would threaten tourism and marine ecology, will protract the process. As the years unfold, clean energy efforts would pick up more of the slack, reducing the need for oil, somewhere down the line.

Still, others may see this, or come to see this, as Obama has stated, as a necessary move to keep a mix of energy available to Americans. If we’re all, Republicans and Democrats and Independents, on a page about anything, it’s the need to keep energy supplies flowing without any more expensive wars in the Middle East, which is the clear subtext when our leaders talk about our “energy security”. (Obviously certain global businesses would not mind continued access into foreign oil supplies, but that’s a different discussion.)

We’re also pretty much on the same page, here in the USA, about our admitted untamed appetite for oil, or whatever, to power our homes and cars. Changing the culture, ramping up cleaner alternatives will take time. Bridge solutions are needed.

(There’s a grain of truth to those testy comments on blog threads that take off on liberals who whine about oil drilling while driving cars and jetting around the world.)

Finally, there will be environmental leaders and NGO’s who see this opening of oil drilling as necessary to grease the skids for the coming climate legislation in Congress. The trade off, more wells in exchange for greenhouse gas regulation, may be worth it.

Which is the wisest strategy, the perception closest to reality? Only time will tell. But as we enter this new era of “pragmatism” which Obama alluded to in his speech – using, in fact, the words, “pragmatic steward” to describe his Secretary of the Interior Steve Salazar – it is worth remembering that until now, many, if not most, mainline environmental groups wanted no compromises on off-shore drilling. Just to keep ourselves honest.

Here’s an excerpt from an NRDC document on Protecting Our Oceans and Coastal Economies:

“Expanded offshore drilling poses the risk of oil spills ruining our beaches from Florida to Main and along the Pacific Coast, bringing harm to those who live, work, and vacation along the coasts, as well as harming habitats critical to plants and animals.”

“Oil spills can quickly traverse distances. For example, when powered by the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current, an oil spill in the eastern Gulf of Mexico [now proposed for drilling under the Obama plan] could affect Florida’s Panhandle beaches and even travel around the Florida Keys to wreak havoc on estuaries and beaches from the Everglades to Cape Canaveral.”

It is worth remembering this, because offshore oil drilling could be very environmentally unfriendly. It could degrade already stressed coastal areas. It increases chances of a catastrophic oil spill.

“The hard lessons of the Exxon Valdez oil spill still haunt us,” said World Wildlife Fund Vice President for Arctic and Marine Policy, Bill Eichbaum in responding to the president’s announcement. “And, as we saw with the recent catastrophe in Australia’s Timor Sea, even the latest advances in technology cannot prevent a major spill from happening or get it cleaned up quickly enough to prevent a natural disaster.” (WWF praised the Obama announcement for banning oil and gas leases in the fragile Bristol Bay in Alaska, though it expressed concern that the plan would allow exploration in other areas of the Arctic.)

The Obama Administration knows this. We think, we hope, they see offshore drilling as a stop-gap measure.

Obama talked today about our need to plump up domestic oil supplies. But he spent almost as much time envisioning a clean energy economy. He noted that China and Germany were moving aggressively in this direction, and that they could claim preeminence in clean energy economy if the U.S. doesn’t move quickly.

He referred to how even the U.S. military [translation: the conservative and war-weary military] is marching  toward clean energy solutions for its fighter jets and armored vehicles.

“Now, the Pentagon isn’t seeking these alternative fuels just to protect our environment; they are pursuing these homegrown energy sources to protect our national security. Our military leaders recognize the security imperative of increasing the use of alternative fuels, decreasing energy use, and reducing our reliance on imported oil. That’s why the Navy, led by Secretary Mabus who is here today, has set a goal of using 50-percent alternative fuel in all planes, vehicles, and ships in the next ten years. And that’s why the Defense Department has invested $2.7 billion this year alone to improve energy efficiency.

“So moving towards clean energy is about our security.  It’s also about our economy.  And it’s about the future of our planet. And what I hope is, is the policies that we’ve laid out — from hybrid fleets to offshore drilling, from nuclear energy to wind energy — underscores the seriousness with which my administration takes this challenge.  It’s a challenge that requires us to break out of the old ways of thinking, to think and act anew.  And it requires each of us, regardless of whether we’re in the private sector or the public sector, whether we’re in the military or in the civilian side of government, to think about how could we be doing things better, how could we be doing things smarter — so that we are no longer tethered to the whims of what happens somewhere in the Middle East or with other major oil-producing nations.”

Next, we find out if this has any resonance at all with Congressional Republicans and conservative Democrats, who stand ready to block the energy and climate legislation being readied by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

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