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Posted at 10:56 AM ET, 12/ 2/2010

Obama's offshore drilling reversal -- yes, there are politics

By Stephen Stromberg

On Wednesday the Obama administration reversed itself on offshore drilling, saying that it would not allow "scoping" of areas off the Atlantic coast or in the eastern Gulf of Mexico for future exploration.

In March, President Obama famously announced the opposite, just before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up. That was some bad timing. The left was already furious that the president handed the GOP a concession on drilling before securing Republican support for Democratic energy priorities -- this became one of the largest pieces of evidence among the left of Obama's supposed weakness in his interactions with Republicans. Then the BP oil spill seemed to give critics' substantive argument against the policy more heft. Is the president now giving in to his base?

It's even more tempting to read some 2012 political calculation -- hi, Florida! -- into this announcement. That is always possible, too.

But here's where politics almost certainly interacted with this decision. Congress has its own, legislated ban on drilling in the eastern gulf. Defending the policy reversal, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Wednesday insisted that his department wants to use its "critical resources" to supervise areas in which rigs are already operating. A translation of this: among other things, the administration won't spend effort studying the eastern gulf if Congress won't lift its ban any time soon. And now that the administration is asking Congress for more money with which to enhance Interior's offshore oversight, it's probably not willing to invest the political resources required to convince Congress to permit drilling in the eastern gulf, as well.

That makes some sense; but, even if it is an accurate read of the administration's thinking, it's still unsatisfying. The president could have shown more allegiance to the policy without being unreasonable -- in terms of politics or the prioritization of "critical resources." Maintaining the ability to study is still probably worthwhile in the eastern gulf, if only to inform the debate in Congress. And the above reasoning doesn't really explain why the Obama administration also won't allow scoping off the Atlantic coast. The administration will permit some preliminary study in the Atlantic over the next five years. But given that America will require plenty of oil for decades, even if Congress finally prices carbon, and given that the administration is increasingly confident in the stringency of its updated offshore permitting and regulation, as it assured us when lifting a post-BP spill moratorium in the western gulf, it seems prudent for Interior to plan to scope the Atlantic coast at some point over the next five years using a "critical resource" or two as it produces its 2012-2017 strategy for the outer continental shelf, even if doing so is not its top priority.

By Stephen Stromberg  | December 2, 2010; 10:56 AM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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