Why is Obama supporting "limited" offshore drilling?

Maybe it's because he understands the big picture -- compromises may be necessary along the way to a sustainable energy future.

Published August 4, 2008 6:27PM (EDT)

Did Barack Obama flip-flop by endorsing a "limited amount of new offshore drilling" in a speech detailing his new energy plan delivered in Lansing, Mich., on Monday?

To even ask the question in such a manner is to drastically oversimplify a complex problem. The best answer, then, is just to recommend reading the full text of the speech. Like nearly all of Obama's major speeches, it is nuanced and comprehensive. Yes, he does endorse expanding domestic production of oil and gas, advocates selling 70 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and even makes a seriously questionable call to "speed up the process of recovering oil and gas resources in shale formations in Montana and North Dakota." But he does so while making absolutely clear that none of these measures will solve the American "addiction" to foreign oil or make any significant long-term impact on gas prices. Not when a country that has only 3 percent of the world's reserves of oil consumes 25 percent of the fuel. No amount of drilling offshore will change that equation, and Obama knows it, and he says so.

All of his new concessions to increased production come in the context of a hugely ambitious plan to steer the entire nation toward renewable and sustainable energy -- a plan that he rightly identifies as critical to both the health of the planet and the health of the U.S. economy.

And on that point he makes it absolutely clear how he differs from his opponent. After noting that he agrees with McCain that today's energy crisis was 30 years in the making, Obama said:

What Senator McCain neglected to mention was that during those thirty years, he was in Washington for twenty-six of them. And in all that time, he did little to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. He voted against increased fuel efficiency standards and opposed legislation that included tax credits for more efficient cars. He voted against renewable sources of energy. Against clean biofuels. Against solar power. Against wind power. Against an energy bill that -- while far from perfect -- represented the largest investment in renewable sources of energy in the history of this country. So when Senator McCain talks about the failure of politicians in Washington to do anything about our energy crisis, it's important to remember that he's been a part of that failure. Now, after years of inaction, and in the face of public frustration over rising gas prices, the only energy proposal he's really promoting is more offshore drilling -- a position he recently adopted that has become the centerpiece of his plan, and one that will not make a real dent in current gas prices or meet the long-term challenge of energy independence.

Obama's new support for some offshore drilling is part, he says, of a compromise cooked up between Democratic and Republican senators that would also include investment "in renewable fuels and batteries for fuel-efficient cars, help automakers re-tool, and make a real investment in renewable sources of energy."

Like all compromises, this one has its drawbacks. It includes a limited amount of new offshore drilling, and while I still don't believe that's a particularly meaningful short-term or long-term solution, I am willing to consider it if it's necessary to actually pass a comprehensive plan. I am not interested in making the perfect the enemy of the good -- particularly since there is so much good in this compromise that would actually reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Since I noted in this very blog just a few weeks ago that Democrats should not agree to more offshore drilling without getting something real in return, I'm not about to criticize Obama now for endorsing exactly such a compromise. I'm more inclined to be skeptical as to his ability, even if elected president, to push through his plan to totally wean the U.S. from needing Middle Eastern or Venezuelan oil in just 10 years. He wants to get "one million 150 mile-per-gallon plug-in hybrids on our roads within six years," he wants to "raise fuel mileage standards four percent every year," he wants to "require 10 percent of our energy comes from renewable sources by the end of my first term" and he wants "businesses, government, and the American people to meet the goal of reducing our demand for electricity 15 percent by the end of the next decade."

Again, hugely ambitious, and given the fiscal wreck of a government Obama would inherit should he be elected president, it's hard to see how he would find a way to pay for everything he wants. If you want to be skeptical of Obama, that's a better place to focus criticism than on the question of whether he has flip-flopped. But the difficulties in achieving his plan shouldn't distract us from the heart of the matter: It's the right plan.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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