Gulf spill raises questions about future U.S. energy policy

McClatchy NewspapersMay 14, 2010 

A shrimp fisherman from Venice, Louisiana, holds an oily tar ball on South Pass Beach, Louisiana, Friday, May 14, 2010. Earlier in the day, hazardous material workers left the island with trash bags full of oily tar balls and oil covered materials. (Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/MCT)

TRAVIS HEYING/WICHITA EAGLE/MCT

WASHINGTON — The Gulf oil spill not only has altered the landscape of the Gulf Coast, it also has completely changed the debate over national energy policy.

"Drill, baby, drill," which drilling proponents chanted until a few weeks ago, has been replaced by "Spill, baby, spill," from opponents. Politicians from the West Coast to Florida propose banning new drilling on the outer continental shelf.

Lawmakers from oil-producing states like Texas and Louisiana, however, warn that shutting off offshore reservoirs hurts domestic production and increases reliance on foreign oil. Environmentalists counter that it's time for renewables such as wind and solar.

Can the U.S. rely on that strategy, however, especially short term?

President Barack Obama appeared to answer that Friday by saying the federal government would ramp up its environmental oversight of exploration but that offshore drilling was still key to U.S. energy policy.

"Now, as I've said before, domestic oil drilling continues to be one part of an overall energy strategy that now includes more clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency than at any other time in our history," Obama said. "But it's absolutely essential that going forward we put in place every necessary safeguard and protection so that a tragedy like this oil spill does not happen again."

Just weeks before the April 20 BP oil rig blowout — which has sent at least 5,000 barrels a day spewing into the Gulf — Obama announced the end of a moratorium on oil exploration in East Coast waters. That's now off the table, as the administration suspended all new drilling proposals for 90 days.

"What you plainly see is a rethinking by Congress and by the administration about what to do," said Wesley Warren, the director of programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "Our national energy policy is broken, and nothing demonstrates that more than this spill."

Public support for offshore oil drilling has dropped, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, which found that 54 percent of respondents said they favored allowing more offshore drilling for oil and gas in U.S. waters, down from 63 percent in early February and 68 percent in April 2009. The poll was conducted May 6-9 among 994 adults.

"Virtually all of the decline in support for offshore drilling has occurred among Democrats and independents, as Republicans remain as supportive as they were before the spill," according to the Pew Research Center.

A proposal by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, made public this week and that's being shaped into legislation would put severe limits on drilling options by giving states numerous checks on federal permits.

"It's a shift in thinking," Warren said. "This proposal a month ago would have looked fairly different."

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said during a hearing Wednesday, "One lesson is already apparent from the catastrophe in the Gulf: We need an energy policy that emphasizes clean, renewable sources of energy."

When he went on to say that it was time to "take on the oil companies," Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the panel's ranking Republican, was livid about the dig at Big Oil "as if that was an adversarial situation."

"There's a reason we're an oil-based economy," Barton said. "There's tremendous productivity potential. The only place to find real oil deposits in meaningful quantities is in the outer continental shelf."

In response to calls to stop further offshore drilling, Barton said, "Do not use this accident to fence off what is probably the biggest domestic energy resource we have on the American continent."

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a strong supporter of expanded domestic production, said the American people were realistic about the nation's energy needs.

"I am encouraged by the American people's ability to see through the emotional aspects of this tragedy and understand the country needs to produce more oil and gas domestically, not less," Landrieu said. "It is clear that the public realizes that even as we move to cleaner, renewable energy, we will still need oil to get us through that transition."

The federal moratorium on drilling offshore, which dated to the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, was lifted in 2008 by Congress and President George W. Bush, at a time of high gasoline prices.

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McClatchy's oil spill coverage

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