Offshore Oil Drilling Debate Could Hurt Obama

Even Democratic advisers say McCain's campaign is wise to bring up an end to the drilling moratorium.

The Discoverer Deep Seas drillship sits on a station off the coast of Louisiana as Chevron drills for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. President Bush is renewing his call to open U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas development, arguing that it's high time to battle high prices with increased domestic production.

The Discoverer Deep Seas drillship sits on a station off the coast of Louisiana as Chevron drills for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

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The fuss over offshore drilling this week has served notice that the issue landscape isn't totally on the side of the Democrats.

Some Democratic strategists admit privately, in fact, that they are impressed with the new Republican campaign calling for an end to the 1981 moratorium on U.S. offshore oil development. Among those who have been pushing the idea, which is resisted by many Democrats in Congress and some governors of coastal states, are President Bush, Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.

There has been little movement in recent years to allow such drilling, but the soaring price of gasoline may be making the public more receptive to the idea as Americans look for more sources of fossil fuel at home.

As a political issue, the proposal may help the GOP find a way to identify with millions of motorists who have a hard time affording gasoline that costs more than $4 per gallon and want some kind of action from Washington. Bush made precisely this point Wednesday when he said, "Americans will rightly ask how...high gas prices have to rise before the Democratically controlled Congress will do something about it."

A recent Gallup Poll found that 57 percent of Americans would support drilling in the nation's coastal and wilderness areas that are currently closed to exploration if it helped reduce gasoline prices and if the drilling was conducted under strict environmental controls.

Democratic strategists say the GOP move seems transparently political—designed to embarrass the opposition, with no real hope that new offshore oil development would reduce the current spike in gasoline prices. Such oil development would take years to show results.

But prominent Democrats, including some advisers to Barack Obama, say the issue gives the GOP an opportunity to talk about taking action on a matter of huge importance to the voters. "Gasoline is an intimate concern in the daily lives of voters," an Obama adviser told U.S. News. "It's a smart thing for Republicans to talk about lifting the ban on offshore drilling. It enables them to talk about energy independence."

Politically smart, the Obama adviser says, but unwise on the merits. He says Obama and the Democrats will push back hard on several fronts. One is that Bush, McCain, and the GOP are allegedly insensitive to environmental concerns. And this could mobilize the green movement against the GOP and McCain in the fall.

McCain's current position in support of lifting the ban makes him look like a flip-flopper because he supported the ban as of only a few months ago, the Democrats point out.

And they say that reducing America's dependence on foreign oil will take a lot more than more drilling offshore—it will require conservation, use of alternative fuels, and other steps.

Obama strategists take the donnybrook as an example of how the GOP remains a force to be reckoned with, even though most Americans have turned against President Bush and say they prefer the Democrats in dealing with many important issues, including the economy. But the GOP still has plenty of ammunition to make the fall battle a close one, Obama advisers say.