For a Democratic president, this is a pretty gutsy move to open the public debate about an energy bill. Or, well, maybe it's not: it's high-reward, low-risk; environmentalists will complain, but then again, environmentalists complain. Aside from the substance, which is beyond our ken, the politics of this move is easy: with one fell swoop, Obama deprives Republicans of the major talking point they'd use to object to more expansive government-based climate remediation and energy prospecting policy.
Republicans will quibble over details: why is he not opening up more places? Why is he excluding Bristol Bay? Why is he excluding parts of the Gulf of Mexico? His steps are too slow, too limited...
The Republicans sort of have a point, although it's not the point they're comfortable with: estimates of how much oil can be extracted are very old -- decades old -- and, as the New York Times notes, "[i]n many of the newly opened areas, drilling would begin only after the completion of geologic studies, environmental impact statements, court challenges and public lease sales. Much of the oil and gas may not be recoverable at current prices and may be prohibitively expensive even if oil prices spike as they did in the summer of 2008."
To which the White House responds by pointing to the headlines: "Obama to Open Offshore Areas to Oil Drilling for First Time." Grist, the environmentalist news website, considers the move a "stunning concession to fossil fuel companies." It shows that the president has a sense of urgency about energy and the environment, etc.
In any event, it seems a little tone deaf, given what the public knows and will learn about the announcement, for Republicans to argue that Obama "continues to defy the will of the American people."
By announcing this BEFORE the Senate moves forward with its climate change legislation, which may or may not include cap-and-trade (probably not), the White House is betting that they'll force Republicans into a corner before the public debate begins, they'll give some cover to moderate Democratic members of Congress (who love it when Obama picks a fight with his own base), and they'll get some public cred with Americans who want to see the president moving quickly to find opportunities to create jobs. This isn't about votes in Congress per se, it's about perception, cover and framing the debate. It's also a move that tries to get ahead of rising gas prices.
Thumbnail photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images