Obama Defends Offshore Drilling But Won't Say 'Drill Baby Drill'

05/27/2010 02:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

President Barack Obama restated his commitment to offshore drilling as part of a broader energy proposal on Thursday even as a massive oil spill in the Gulf has raised concerns about its safety and usefulness.

But in his first press conference in many months, the president made as strong a case as in recent memory that he thought the practice is risky and ultimately needs to be phased out as a method for extracting energy sources.

"The fact that oil companies now have to go a mile under water and then drill another three miles below that in order to hit oil tells us something about the direction of the oil industry: extraction is more expensive and it is going to be inherently more risky," Obama said. "And so that's part of the reason you never heard me say, 'drill, baby, drill.'"

At times apologetic over mishaps in the Gulf, at times exacting in his anger with the situation and the role of BP, the president nevertheless insisted that the spill has not altered his belief that offshore drilling is a necessary component of immediate energy legislation. Asked if he has regrets about backing the provision (just weeks before the spill began), he replied:

I continue to believe what I said at that time, which was that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall energy mix. It has to be part of an overall energy strategy. I also believe that it is insufficient to meet the needs of our future... But we're not going to be able to transition to these clean energy strategies right away. I mean, we're still years off and some technological breakthroughs away from being able to operate on purely a clean energy grid. During that time, we're going to be using oil. And to the extent that we're using oil, it makes sense for us to develop our oil in natural gas resources here in the United States and not simply rely on imports. That's important for our economy. That's important for economic growth. So the overall framework, which is to say domestic oil production should be part of our overall energy mix, I think continues to be the right one. Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios...

...We can't drill our way out of the problem. It may be part of the mix as a bridge to a transition to new technologies and new energy sources, but we should be pretty modest in understanding that the easily accessible oil has already been sucked up out of the ground. And as we are moving forward, the technology gets more complicated, the oil sources are more remote, and that means that there's probably going to end up being more risk. And we as a society are going to have to make some very serious determinations in terms of what risks are we willing to accept.

This may be an honest reading on the state of America's energy needs. But the political landscape has changed drastically since the president first announced his support for additional drilling and exploration. Back then, it seemed reasonable that skeptics like Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL.) would swallow their opposition to additional offshore activity for the sake of passing a larger bill. Today, the Florida Democrat insists that any energy bill that includes any offshore drilling component would be dead on arrival in the chamber, and he is being seconded in his assessment by the lone Republican negotiator, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).