No Solutions, but Some Progress

As with many environmental and energy policy questions, President Obama's decision to open up some areas along the Atlantic coast,the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Alaska's north coast to offshore exploration and drilling for oil and natural gas reflects a complex mix of political and policy considerations. The result is a decision that will please no party entirely, but fair-minded observers can see it as a small step forward on a difficult issue. No solutions here, but some progress.

Advocates of offshore energy development are right to say that the technologies involved in these enterprises are vastly improved from those that were used when the offshore drilling moratorium was enacted. The footprint of these operations is smaller, and the risk of accidents is far lower. The resilience of offshore drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico during recent hurricanes is testament to that fact.

Offshore energy development serves several policy goals, while also reflecting careful political calculations. Many Americans would like to produce more energy from domestic sources and import less from the Middle East; many more Americans care not at all about where their energy comes from but are deeply concerned about the price they pay for it.

Many Americans would like to produce more energy from domestic sources and import less from the Middle East.

The administration's offshore drilling proposal won't do much to solve either of those problems in and of itself, but it will help--a little, at least.

Political considerations clearly factored heavily on the president's mind as well. The administration needs to reach out to Republicans to lay a foundation for future cooperation on difficult issues such as climate change and energy policy.

Obama's action is an olive branch, though a limited one--oil-rich areas offshore of California and Alaska, for instance, remain off-limits. With his proposal, he risks irritating his base while still failing to please Republicans; serving half a loaf gives everyone a taste while leaving both sides hungry for more.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, for example, acknowledged the president's initiative was a "positive step"--while blasting his decision to keep the Pacific and Alaskan coasts closed to drilling. But Mr. Boehner may not have been Obama's target today: Senator Lindsay Graham, the crucial Republican vote in the tripartisan climate coalition that is struggling to form in the Senate, has said that he cannot support any bill that "doesn't have offshore drilling in a meaningful way." In that light, Obama's decision was a necessary--but not necessarily sufficient--precondition for any bipartisan compromise on energy and climate legislation.

Policy wonks like me dream of the day when energy and climate policy decisions are made in a coherent, rational fashion, rather than piecemeal political compromises such as this. Dream on.

Samuel Thernstrom is a resident fellow and codirector of the Geoengineering Project at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockhoto/Andrew Penner

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About the Author


  • Samuel Thernstrom has studied and written about environmental issues for twenty years, with a particular emphasis on global climate change. He served on the White House Council on Environmental Quality prior to joining AEI in 2003. As codirector of the AEI Geoengineering Project, Mr. Thernstrom studied the policy implications of geoengineering, or climate engineering. This groundbreaking field of climate science involves changing features of the earth's environment to offset the warming effect of greenhouse gases. He has been published on and in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, and he has appeared on BBC News, ABC News, CNN, FOX News, NPR, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.

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