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Obama's Oil Plan: Something for Nothing? Or Nothing for Something?

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Forgive me if my Outrage-O-Meter registers low today despite the President's coastal drilling announcement.

Candidate Obama announced his willingness to compromise on coastal drilling quite dramatically during the campaign. And the Senate climate bill talks have been premised on expanded coastal drilling ever since last year's New York Times op-ed from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). The outlined drilling-nukes-carbon cap deal has long received tacit support from most environmental groups, while keeping business lobbies intrigued.

There is no surprise in Obama is making this move. The only surprise is that he did before a climate deal was in place.

Is this a sly move on the path for a grand compromise for a carbon cap? Or is it boneheaded capitulation that can only at best lead to a paper-thin ineffective climate bill?

I don't think we can predict that until the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham climate compromise effort has finished.

Opening the door to more coastal drilling could be something-for-nothing ... if the climate talks collapse, or the resulting bill is a greenwash that doesn't establish a framework for cutting carbon.

But it could also be nothing-for-something.

During the 2008 "Drill, Baby, Drill" conservative frenzy, it was regularly pointed out by myself and others that the primary arguments against expanded coastal drilling were there just isn't much oil there, and what little is there wouldn't get touched for at least 10 years.

And while the oil lobby has desperately wanted to end the moratorium for political reasons, it's not at all clear oil companies fervently want to actually drill for this oil for business reasons.

As Climate Progress' Joe Romm (who vehemently disagrees with the political logic of Obama's move today) said in 2008:

...the constraints on offshore drilling have little to do with the price of oil, but a lot to do with timing. Once the leases are available, it is a 5 to 10 years before you get to exploratory drilling. There is a tremendous shortage of drilling rigs and manpower. Plus, offshore drilling is so expensive, you don't want to make any mistakes. So you spend do a lot of seismic analysis to minimize your chances of a dry well.

And it is probably another five or more years from drilling your exploratory well to getting significant production from the area -- and that assumes you didn't dig a dry well. If you did, then you are probably going to be even more cautious. And all that assumes you have developed a pipeline infrastructure for delivering the oil. But the Atlantic Coast lacks such an infrastructure, so who knows how long it would take to get its oil?

So, if this move doesn't actually lead to significant coastal drilling, but calms the oil lobby -- which was already expressing openness to a climate compromise that levies a carbon tax on them instead of an emissions cap -- and helps cobble together a Senate supermajority around a workable bill, then it would be nothing-for-something.

I can't tell you today which is right. If this is something-for-nothing, or nothing-for-something. If Obama is being sly or stupid.

I would suggest that debating Obama's political skills is a waste of time. The die is cast.

The environmental fight to be had today is the same one as yesterday: the debate over the climate bill itself.

Originally posted at OurFuture.org

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