A compromise -- or a cave in -- on offshore drilling?

Some Democratic politicians are talking about a deal on new drilling. But they're not asking for enough in return for their surrender

Published July 10, 2008 1:37PM (EDT)

Are Democratic politicians set to cave on offshore drilling?

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), told reporters that he was "open to drilling and responsible production." The Journal speculated that this "opened the door to a compromise with Republicans that would open more land on and offshore to oil and gas exploration and production."

Before getting too riled at spineless Democrats, however, it's worth noting that the real capitulators here aren't necessarily politicians, but Americans. The Journal also quoted a Rasmussen poll from June indicating that "67 percent of Americans support deepwater energy exploration -- with 64 percent expecting it will lower gas prices."

They're wrong, of course. Expanded offshore exploration and drilling in the U.S. will not lower gas prices, not now, not ten years from now. As long as we consume a quarter of the world's oil with only 3 percent of the world's oil reserves, we'll be at the mercy of the global price for oil, and we're not going to make a dent in that by adding a few more offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and off the California coast.

But that's irrelevant -- Americans have never been good at long-term thinking, and the current energy crisis is only the latest manifestation of that. The psychology at work here should give pause to anyone who thinks the world can successfully deal with climate change or preserve the environment. When push comes to shove, we're just not good at sacrificing present comfort for long-term security.

But here's what should be riling people. The "compromise" referred to by the Journal "would be contingent at a minimum on a requirement that oil and gas companies sitting on existing acreage either produce oil on those areas within a specified period or return the leases to the government."

This is a non-issue. If it was profitable to produce oil from that acreage, oil companies would be doing so. To make such a contingency the flip side of any deal is ridiculous.

Republicans want to drill. Voters want to drill. Going against the will of the people may well be political suicide. OK then -- give them what they want, but get something real in return. Get the production tax credit for wind power renewed. Expand solar incentives. Institute stringent energy efficiency standards. Accelerate funding for research and development into green energy technologies. If the Republicans want to drill enough, force them to make some sacrifices.

That's how you show some backbone. And that's how you prepare for a future when gas prices will be even higher.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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