In the presidential debates this fall, Barack Obama came out in favor of expanding offshore oil drilling in a limited, environmentally sound capacity, effectively neutralizing what had been a politically resonant issue for Republican lawmakers.
But as he prepares to take over as president, Obama is coming under pressure from environmental groups looking not only to block or sharply limit new offshore drilling but also to reverse a series of Bush administration policies and orders that have led to a surge in onshore oil and gas drilling in recent years.
Environmentalists' push for greater land protection and preservation, observers say, is likely to play out in the first few months of the Obama administration, either in the form of congressional energy legislation or through executive orders issued by the new president. In either case, they say, Obama will have to manage sharply disparate views on drilling within and outside his party, while avoiding the appearance of backpedaling on his campaign pledges.
At the top of environmentalists' drilling wish list: reinstating the restrictions on offshore oil drilling that lapsed earlier this year in the midst of unresolved national debate. President Bush rescinded an 18-year-old executive ban on drilling this summer, and congressional restrictions expired in September as lawmakers turned their attention to the tumbling economy. As a result, areas just miles off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts are now technically open for consideration for future drilling. "The current situation is untenable," says National Audubon Society Legislative Director Mike Daulton. "We don't believe there is any support for only 3 miles of protection for our beaches and coastal economy."
There is speculation, fed by members of his transition team, that Obama might issue an executive order shortly after he takes office temporarily reinstating drilling restrictions. The debate would then likely move to Congress as part of a bigger energy package that could come up within the first few months of the new administration. At the very least, environmentalists would like to see Congress put in buffer zones stretching at least 50 miles out to sea that would sharply limit where oil companies can drill.
Onshore drilling, too, is attracting environmentalists' attention. Over the past eight years, oil and natural gas drilling on public land have boomed, and many observers credit the growth to Bush administration policies that have tilted the government's view of land use away from conservation and in favor of production.
Two executive orders, both signed in 2001, stand out. One directs federal agencies to move faster with energy-related projects and to speed up the rate at which they give out permits to oil and natural gas companies. The other requires agencies to prepare impact statements whenever they take actions that might adversely affect energy development. (Many environmental groups feel the second order acts as an "inverse incentive" for land conservation.)
"These are all things [the Bush White House] did administratively," says Ann Morgan, a vice president at the Wilderness Society, noting that the executive orders were backed up with big increases in oil and gas program budgets. "It can all be undone administratively, too." Her organizations and others are pressing Obama to revoke the two Bush executive orders and to promote a more "balanced" approached to land use incorporating scientific findings about the impact of development on wildlife.
Environmentalists are also asking Obama to reconsider certain controversial onshore and offshore drilling programs already underway, in particular those in the Rocky Mountain West and in Alaska's Bristol Bay and Beaufort Sea, as well as areas newly opened up offshore. Just last week, the Interior Department announced that it was going ahead with the first step of a process to allow energy companies to drill 50 miles off the Virginia coastline, an area that was off limits until the congressional moratorium expired this fall.