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Obama's move on oil drilling chafes his allies

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on energy policy - including a proposal to open large parts of the U.S. coast to offshore oil and gas drilling - at an Air Force base in Morningside, Md., March 31, 2010.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama's opponents mocked him with the chant of "Drill, baby, drill." Two years later, he's finally answered.

In a move that will enrage many of his allies but please some of his adversaries, the U.S. President has proposed opening up a huge swath of U.S. coastal waters to drilling for oil and natural gas.

The announcement is a bold gamble with an eye toward political arithmetic, observers said.

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It comes just before U.S. lawmakers are set to consider broad changes to energy policy that will tackle the contentious issue of climate change. By allowing offshore drilling, Mr. Obama is hoping to win support for those measures among Republicans and right-wing Democrats.

Looking ahead to November's midterm elections, Mr. Obama's surprise move can be expected to resonate with voters wary about their energy-hungry nation's dependence on Middle East oil.

While welcomed by Republicans, the move drew withering criticism from environmentalists and some in the Democratic party. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey said the policy amounts to "Kill, baby, kill: it threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life, and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars."

Mr. Obama's proposal represents a major expansion of efforts to find and extract oil from domestic sources, including the Atlantic waters between Delaware and Florida, parts of the Gulf of Mexico, and off the northern coast of Alaska.

Mr. Obama called the move one of several "tough decisions" necessary to make the United States more self-sufficient in energy even as it attempts to shift toward renewable sources of power.

"We need to move beyond the tired debates of left and right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure-all and those who would claim it has no place," he said.

Several areas would be off-limits: Alaska's Bristol Bay, a haven for wildlife, would be closed to exploration, as would the entire U.S. Pacific Coast. In some places, like Alabama and Florida, no wells would be allowed within 125 miles, or 200 kilometres, of the coast.

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Mr. Obama presented the proposal as staking out a middle ground in a debate that has roiled Americans for years, and especially since the 2008 presidential election campaign. Exit polls showed offshore drilling held broad appeal: almost half of those who voted for Mr. Obama supported it, while 90 per cent of those who voted for John McCain did.

Later this month, the Senate is expected to take up a far-reaching climate-change bill that aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and ramp up the use of renewable energy. Offshore drilling had emerged as a major stumbling block ahead of those negotiations, particularly for certain undecided Republicans.

Mr. Obama "knows he needs the votes from the senators from the oil- and energy-producing states," said Charles Ebinger, an energy expert at the Brookings Institution. "It's a risky thing for the President to do because he does have a lot of people in his own administration who are opposed to it."

It's also unclear whether the attempt to woo Republican legislators will succeed. With the bruising battle over health care barely over and another on financial reform under way, the appetite for bipartisan co-operation appears all but non-existent.

While supporting the move, some Republicans doubted that any drilling will ever take place. Others said Mr. Obama's proposal doesn't go nearly far enough. "It's long past time for this administration to stop delaying American energy production off all our shores," said John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, in a statement.

Opposition is equally vehement. Mr. Lautenberg was one of 10 senators from coastal states who recently wrote a letter expressing "great concern" about the possibility of "unfettered" offshore drilling to the trio of senators involved in crafting the upcoming climate bill. Those three senators - Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut - may unveil the legislation the week of Earth Day, April 22.

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Experts say it will be several years at least before any drilling takes place and that it's impossible to predict how much oil might be found. They add that it's extremely unlikely to be discovered in sufficient quantities to transform America's reliance on foreign oil.

It's a point that environmental groups drove home yesterday. "Drilling our coasts will doing nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.

Some analysts say they were surprised by the timing of Mr. Obama's announcement, since they expected the question of offshore drilling to be a bargaining chip in the actual negotiations over the climate bill, rather than a kind of peace offering ahead of time.

"They've annoyed their allies and it's not clear they've gotten anything in return," said Joseph Romm, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, who runs an influential blog called Climate Progress.

Such ruffled feathers could get smoothed over if Mr. Obama's gambit succeeds and the end result is the passage of a comprehensive bill tackling climate change.

"A lot of people within his own party aren't going to be happy about this," said Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "But they probably aren't going to vote Republican or stay home either."

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About the Author
U.S. Correspondent

Joanna Slater is an award-winning foreign correspondent for The Globe based in the United States, where her focus is business and economic news and New York City.Her career includes reporting assignments in the U.S., Europe and Asia. In 2015, she was posted in Berlin, Germany, where she covered Europe’s refugee crisis. More

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