by Kent Garber

President Obama hopes to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation

Alaska's Bristol Bay is one of the sites for The Deadliest Catch, the popular reality television show in which courageous fisherman brave the high seas in search of Alaskan crab. Located off the state's southwestern coast, the waters are home to one of the world's largest wild salmon runs, and according to experts, produce roughly 40 percent of the nation's seafood annually.

Bristol Bay has also been prized for another reason: oil.

For nearly a quarter century, the region has been caught in a tug-of-war between oil companies and environmentalists, though until 2007 it was protected by a presidential ban on offshore drilling.

President George W. Bush revoked the ban, however, and instructed the Interior Department to draw up plans to lease the area to oil and gas developers. Not surprisingly, the move outraged environmentalists, prompted lawsuits from several Alaskan coastal communities, and has become a major symbol of the fraught politics of offshore drilling.

President Obama waded into the debate when he announced his new strategy for offshore drilling. Most of the early news reports characterized it as a major boon to developers. Under his proposal, Obama would allow new oil exploration off much of the Atlantic coast and parts of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, both of which have been off limits for decades. But Obama's proposal was also restrictive. In particular, it took Bristol Bay off the table. Had Obama not acted, developers could have been bidding on leases in the region as early as next year.

Bristol Bay wasn't the only region spared. Farther north in Alaska are the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, both highly prized by oil companies. Later this summer, Shell is expected to begin drilling exploratory oil wells in the region, a precursor to commercial drilling. Obama's plan will allow the exploratory drilling to continue, but also puts holds on lease sales in the region, representing tens of millions of acres, until additional environmental and seismic testing is done. "It's a little bit of a timeout," says Marilyn Heiman, the arctic program director for the Pew Environment Group. Meanwhile, Obama deemed the Pacific coast off-limits, as well as the Atlantic coast of New Jersey and states above.

Obama's decision has multiple motivations.

On one level, he is acknowledging that the United States requires oil for transportation and will continue to for some time. As Obama put it, "The answer is not drilling everywhere all the time. But the answer is not, also, for us to ignore the fact that we are going to need vital energy sources to maintain our economic growth and our security."

But there is a political dimension, too.

Obama wants to pass a major climate and energy bill soon, and a bipartisan group of senators is expected to unveil one later this month. Yet energy is as much a geographical issue as a partisan one, so in order to win votes, Obama has to pacify politicians who want help for their local industries. Earlier this year, he pledged some $8 billion to build new nuclear reactors; now he's allowing some new oil exploration.

From the varied reaction, it's hard to tell whether that approach is working. One environmental group lambasted Obama as "horribly misguided"; one Republican accused him of creating a "smokescreen" to give the appearance of supporting offshore drilling. Perhaps the most telling reaction, though, was from Virginia, where lawmakers from both parties have been pushing to open up water off the coast to drilling. According to estimates, the region might contain as much as 130 million barrels of oil. The state's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, hailed Obama's announcement, saying new drilling "will mean thousands of new jobs, hundreds of millions in new state revenue, and tens of billions of dollars in economic impact for the commonwealth."

Of course, most of that money won't materialize any time soon, even under the most optimistic predictions. Before a well actually goes into the ocean floor, federal agencies must complete a comprehensive environmental review, as well as seismic studies to determine where the largest oil deposits are located. So Obama's strategy removes one major barrier to new offshore development. But even if the rest of the regulatory steps go well, new oil is still many years away.


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Obama's Offshore Oil Decision Has Political Dimension | Kent Garber

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