THE BLOG

The Truth About Offshore Drilling

07/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dean Baker of Truthout recently published a wonderful article about McCain's plan for oil drilling off the Florida coast.

Baker makes three very important points about this plan.

First, there is simply not enough oil there to make any kind of difference in terms of the energy crisis: "The Energy Information Agency (EIA) projects that if we go the drilling route, we could hit peak production of 200,000 barrels a day by 2030." This is a trivial quantity, amounting to about 0.2% of the world's production at that time, and about 1% of the U.S. consumption right now. It would increase domestic production by less than 3%. So offshore drilling would do nothing at all to reduce the price of oil or to "reduce dependency on foreign oil," to invoke everyone's favorite slogan.

Second, Baker makes the point that the media has severely distorted the debate between McCain and Obama:

"The media have portrayed the disagreement between Senators Obama and McCain as to whether to allow drilling in the currently protected offshore areas as a question of values. Senator Obama values the environment, while Senator McCain wants to bring down energy prices and promote economic growth."

This portrayal of the debate is a complete misrepresentation, since "McCain's plan will have no measurable impact on the price of oil or on economic growth. In other words, Senator McCain is willing to jeopardize the environment in these protected areas for nothing."

Finally, Baker makes this telling point, that there are easy-to-execute conservation measures that would do far more to reduce the oil crunch:

"There are alternatives to drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive areas that can produce real results. Conservation is the most obvious.... Suppose we raised average fuel efficiency to 40 MPG by 2030; this would save us more than 5 million barrels of oil per day, 25 times as much as we would get from Senator McCain's offshore drilling. Since many cars sold today already get more than 40 MPG, this is hardly an unrealistic target. Wherever we set our targets, the simple arithmetic shows that it is far easier to have an impact on oil markets through conservation than drilling in environmentally sensitive areas."

Baker did not, however, ask this question: Why would McCain advocate such a plan, instead of the straightforward conservation measures that are much better?

There are two answers to this question.

First, though McCain's plan for off shore drilling will not ease the energy crisis, it is a dandy piece of patronage for the oil industry. Halliburton and other oil service companies will get huge contracts to drill there, while the big distributors (Exxon and the gang) will be able to make very nice profits from extracting and selling the 200,000 barrels per day. (Profits from this amount of oil could easily exceed three billion dollars per year). The fact that taxpayers will foot the bill for government support of the project (including guarding the platforms, protecting them from weather, etc) and then pay the environmental price of its impact is of no never mind to McCain, since he can depend on the media to portray these expenses as the price we pay for alleviating the oil crisis.

Second, McCain does not want to impose 40 mpg on auto manufacturers because this would cut into their profitability by forcing them to develop hybrid and alternate fuel automobiles. These are expensive and problematic projects that the manufacturers know would cut into their already fragile profits. McCain, for his part, does not want to make the already struggling auto manufactuers "take one for the team." The same goes for all the other conservation measures (like cogeneration, which would reduce manufacturing profits, or insulation, which would reduce housing contractor profits).

The big point is this. During the energy crisis, Washington is conducting "politics as usual": exploiting public alarm to enact destructive policies that are profitable to a key corporate clients, and avoiding constructive policies that would probably reduce the profits of key corporate clients.

And let's keep this in mind. Though Obama has demurred on the off shore drilling scam, he has signed on to many others, including subsidizing shale oil extraction that could take down the Rocky Mountains, while remaining totally silent on key conservation measures.

What can we learn from all this? One lesson is that policies relating to the big problems facing our country turn out to be deeply entangled with the loyalty of government officials to the short term profits of the biggest corporations. Another lesson is that government officials can depend on the media to help them "justify" their service to industries by concealing the real impact of their policies.