August 19, 2008
HOUSE SPEAKER Nancy Pelosi has joined presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama in a flip-flop on the issue of drilling for oil on the Outer Continental Shelf. Until recently, all three had supported Congress's longtime moratorium on the drilling, lest it endanger marine wildlife in productive fishing areas like New England's Georges Bank. But polls showing heavy popular support for exploiting the shelf in the face of rising fuel prices seem to have caused the politicians to reconsider.
The three would not have switched had they just weighed the merits of drilling. If the moratorium ended tomorrow, there would be no oil production from the shelf for a decade. The output then would be a drop in the bucket of global capacity, with little effect on the world price of oil.
Nothing from the Outer Continental Shelf is likely to change the basic math of US energy dependence: Americans use more than 20 percent of world oil production but have just 3 percent of global oil reserves. In the meantime, oil companies are sitting on leases for 64 million acres of public offshore and onshore sites that they have not bothered to explore.
Pelosi's plan is to combine in one bill an end to the moratorium with other energy-related proposals, such as increased mass-transit subsidies and a requirement that utilities get more of their power from renewable sources. While these would be steps forward, another wrongheaded part of her package is a policy much favored by her fellow Democrats in Congress: release of supplies from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But the reserve is meant to be tapped in genuine emergencies caused by war or natural disaster, not to bring down the price of gasoline in an election year.
Pelosi also wants to require energy companies to pay higher royalties for oil and gas production from leased federal land. This and similar proposals will cost her plan Republican support in the House and spur a guaranteed GOP filibuster if it makes it to the Senate. As far as Pelosi is concerned, that may be just as well - she would rather wait until after the election, in hopes of bigger Democratic majorities in Congress and a Democrat in the White House, before taking serious action on energy.
For Pelosi, giving ground on the drilling moratorium is a way to let her party's members cast a vote in favor of a popular proposal. But her maneuver will only feed public cynicism about elected officials and give undeserved respectability to a so-called solution to the energy crisis - one that would likely worsen the global crisis in declining fish stocks. ww.bostonglobe.com