It's tempting for Californians to applaud President Obama's offshore oil drilling proposal, as it spares this state the blight and risk associated with expanded oil exploration in the waters off California's coast. Indeed, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is up for reelection this year, cheered the president's plan in classically parochial terms: "President Obama's decision to block the Bush administration's plan to expand drilling off the California coast," she said in a statement, "recognizes the importance of protecting our state's $23-billion coastal economy, thousands of jobs and the beauty of our state."
True enough, but Obama's plan inflicts those same burdens on other states as part of a package that would exacerbate climate change, deliver negligible economic benefits and double down on America's destructive dependence on fossil fuels.
Surely, Obama understands that, but this plan is geared toward politics, not environmental protection. During the presidential campaign, Obama supported offshore oil drilling in part to bolster his right flank against his oil-fueled opponents, Sen. John McCain and then-Gov. Sarah Palin, Big Oil's dream ticket for high office. Obama's imprecise endorsement of offshore drilling -- he supported the idea in concept without ever saying in which parts of the country he would be inclined to allow it -- alarmed some California supporters, Boxer included, who worried that it could signal reopening the coast to a business largely shut out here since an oil spill off Santa Barbara in 1969.
Instead, Obama's plan would leave in place the coastal protections for California, Oregon and Washington -- three states, incidentally, that helped elect him in 2008 -- while allowing drilling to go forward along the southern Atlantic coast and in parts of the Gulf of Mexico. Virginia and Florida, which want the revenue associated with drilling, would be allowed to explore it. The political benefits of such an approach were evident Thursday. Not only did Boxer applaud the plan, so did representatives of Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute, not Boxer's normal bedfellows.
But even as politics, the Obama plan deserves skepticism. Obama is clearly hoping to win bipartisan support for his energy bill. But he spent a year courting Republican support for healthcare, only to be reminded in the end that reasonable accommodation only works when dealing with reasonable people. There's no reason to think that a failed strategy on healthcare will suddenly becoming a winning one on climate change.
The real trouble with offshore drilling is that it threatens more than just the shores off which it occurs. Conservation, cleaner fuels and more efficient technologies are the core elements of a sound energy policy. Offshore drilling, wherever it occurs, merely deepens American dependence on a limited resource and thus perpetuates the nation's environmental difficulties.