Gulf oil spill spreads into U.S. politics

McClatchy NewspapersMay 6, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The oil spill is reaching far beyond the Gulf Coast and deep into American politics in an important election year.

It's calling into question President Barack Obama's proposal to open new offshore areas to oil drilling. It's complicating already difficult efforts to pass a controversial bill aimed at curbing climate change. It's also all but certain to become a major issue in many of this fall's campaigns for control of Congress.

Yet as the spill pushes the needle of public opinion toward the anti-offshore-drilling position — taking some politicians with it — longer-term politics and policy remain tempered by the fact that much of America's future domestic oil and natural gas reserves are out there in deep water, and a majority of Americans still want to tap them.

At the center of the political equation, Obama wants to wait for the results of a 30-day review of the spill before deciding how to proceed on offshore drilling, although his Interior Department announced Thursday that it will delay drilling off Virginia's coast indefinitely. It had been expected to begin as soon as next year.

Some Democrats in Congress echo Obama's wait-and-see approach.

"We're all going to back off from offshore drilling until we get a better handle of how to make it safe," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader.

"From a political standpoint, I think the president's response and no-new-drilling-until-we-find-out makes sense," added Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader of the House of Representatives.

Others won't wait.

Move-on.org, a liberal group, called the spill a wake-up call and launched a new ad urging Obama to "reinstate the ban on new offshore drilling."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., whose state economy relies on tourists visiting its beaches, said that any proposal to open more offshore sites for drilling was "dead on arrival."

Countering Nelson, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., worried openly that a backlash against drilling would threaten a crucial resource.

"They've drilled a thousand wells in the gulf, and all have been drilled safely and with no disruptions," she said. "I don't believe we should shut down an industry because we had one incident. When an airliner falls out of the sky, do we ground all planes forever?"

Republicans haven't been chanting "drill, baby, drill" since the spill, but few of them in Congress have turned against offshore drilling. Still, the spill might make it more difficult to forge the kind of Senate coalition necessary to pass legislation that would curb the burning of fossil fuels to counter climate change.

"I believe this is the year — perhaps our last, best chance — to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., one of the bill's chief authors.

The problem: Sponsors included new offshore drilling in the bill to attract more votes, but environmentalists say the spill will create pressure to do the opposite.

"Tell your senators today that you will not let them sacrifice the oceans in the name of climate change," says a Web posting from the environmental group Oceana.

Including offshore drilling in the climate bill may cost more votes than it gains.

"The tragedy drives home the need to do away with dirty fuels," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, one of several senators who said they'd vote against the legislation if it allows expanded drilling.

"I will have a very hard time ever voting for offshore drilling again," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano talks about best and worst case scenarios in Biloxi, Miss., on Thursday

Whether it's part of that legislation or not, oil and gas production from offshore drilling remains a key part of the country's energy future. The Gulf of Mexico helps the United States reduce its reliance on imported oil. Production there is projected to peak at 1.88 million barrels a day in 2013, the government estimates. The U.S. consumes about 21 million barrels of oil per day, more than half of it imported.

"The bottom line is this," Obama said March 31 when he announced his support for expanding offshore drilling. "Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs ... we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable homegrown energy."

With conventional oil production past its peak across North America, drilling offshore assumes greater importance. Despite the expense — up to $150 million to develop a deepwater well — there are at least 42 exploration and/or production projects under way in deepwater areas of the Gulf of Mexico, and the government forecasts increased production over the next decade.

Polls show that most Americans favor drilling.

In a post-spill survey, pollster John Zogby found that 63 percent of Americans support offshore drilling, though 62 percent also support a temporary suspension. A Fox News poll this week found that 60 percent of Americans favor increased offshore drilling, down from 70 percent the previous month, while 33 percent oppose it, up from 22 percent a month before. Switchers were almost all Democrats and independents.

Still, reaction fluctuates from state to state: more opposition in beach-conscious Florida and California, more support in oil-industry Texas and Louisiana.

The spill clearly will affect congressional campaigns for November's elections, when control of the House and Senate is up for grabs.

Republicans worked to label the spill "Obama's Katrina," hoping that he and his Democratic Party will be blamed for not containing the damage faster, much as former President George W. Bush was blamed for a slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Democrats countered with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee citing the spill in a mass e-mail in an attempt to portray Republicans as friends of big oil.

In Florida, the spill is a hot issue in the high-profile campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who's running as an independent, reversed his prior support for offshore drilling. "All bets are off," he said. "We've got to cease and desist as it relates to this."

Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate, said there were no immediate drilling plans, but that "I don't think we can move forward" until it was known how the spill occurred.

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, the leading Democratic candidate, reasserted his opposition to gulf drilling.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger withdrew his support for planned drilling from existing platforms off the coast near Santa Barbara.

Leading candidates to replace him in November's election — Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman — also oppose the drilling. A Republican challenger for his party's nomination, Steve Poizner, supports drilling.

(Kevin G. Hall, Renee Schoof and William Douglas contributed to this article.)

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