Sen. Barack Obama today softened his opposition to new offshore drilling, saying in a speech at Michigan State University that he is "willing to consider" allowing additional drilling in a limited number of offshore areas if it helps Congress pass energy legislation.
The announcement, which represents a departure from the Obama campaign's steady opposition to offshore drilling, quickly elicited "flip-flopping" charges, just as Sen. John McCain's call for expanded offshore drilling did earlier this summer. But it also appears to closely align with an energy plan recently put forth in Congress and hints at how lawmakers may plan to ultimately address the gas price crisis.
In his remarks today, Obama referred generically to a "compromise" hammered out last week by "a group of Democrat and Republican senators" in Washington, calling it "a first good step." The compromise, proposed by a bipartisan group of senators known as "the Gang of 10," would open up new acres for drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and give Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia the option of allowing drilling beyond 50 miles off their coasts. Currently, these areas are off limits to drilling because of congressional restrictions.
The compromise proposal, which carries an $84 billion price tag, also calls for massive government investments in energy efficiency and nonpetroleum fuels, with a goal of 85 percent of new motor vehicles running on alternative fuels within 20 years.
Several Senate Democrats have sent signals recently that they would be willing to consider the Gang of 10's proposal, despite their previous opposition to offshore drilling. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, referring to the compromise, said that "while I do not agree with every part of it, I very much appreciate the bipartisan spirit in which it was constructed." And earlier today, high-ranking senators from each party—Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman—agreed to lead an energy summit upon Congress's return from its August recess.
In his speech, Obama indicated that his shift on offshore drilling is political, not philosophical. "I still don't believe that's a particularly meaningful short-term or long-term position," he said, but added that he did not want to make "the perfect the enemy of the good." In that sense, he still appears to differ from McCain, who has made expanding offshore drilling a centerpiece of his energy plan, including drilling off the California coastline, which is not included in the Gang of 10's plan and is strongly opposed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In response to Obama's speech, which included calls to tap the nation's strategic oil reserve and to greatly enhance government funding for alternative energy, the McCain campaign quickly assailed the Democratic senator's noticeable omission of nuclear energy, which provides 20 percent of the country's electricity and is frequently mentioned by McCain. "The Obama assertion that he can take off the table new natural gas, take off the table new oil supplies, take off the table nuclear power, take off the table building coal-powered power plants and somehow in 10 years will relieve the United States of its reliance of imported oil is utterly unrealistic," said McCain adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin.