Much of the coverage of Obama's announcement on offshore drilling focuses on the politics. Yes, this co-opts a major Republican talking point ahead of the potential debate on carbon regulation. Yes, this will cause much consternation among environmentalists and will make oil companies happy.
But politics aside, this is just plain smart.
The "energy problem" is really two problems in one. The first problem is climate change, and you address that by reducing consumption of fossil fuels: renewable energy, conservation, carbon regulation, etc. Offshore drilling doesn't help the climate change problem, but it doesn't hurt it either, because the economy as currently structured burns the same amount of oil regardless of where it comes from.
Which leads us to the second problem. Oil is an increasingly scarce commodity, and large amounts of the world's oil are controlled by autocracies with unfriendly governments. As oil prices rise -- which they will as the global economy recovers -- those countries gain power far out of proportion to their overall importance. To gain leverage over those countries, you reduce the importance of their oil. That means reducing consumption, but it also means developing alternative sources, particularly sources controlled by the US or by other friendly democracies.
In the long run, switching the world to a post-fossil fuel economy would address both problems. Climate change policy and energy security policy have the same ultimate goal. But even the most starry-eyed optimists agree that such a switch will take far longer than a single presidency, and in the short term the US economy would be crippled without a secure energy supply. Hence the importance of clean coal, offshore drilling, nuclear energy, etc.
Yes, it's good politics, but it's also good policy.
Environmentalists are appalled, and not entirely without reason. The impact of offshore drilling can be huge. But there's a certain amount of hypocrisy in protecting Virginia's beaches at the expense of Nigeria's coastal rainforest. Until oil exploration is eliminated altogether, rigorous oversight is the best way to minimize its environmental impact. Democracies are much better at accountability and oversight than other systems.
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