Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Many in the environmental community are annoyed by Barack Obama’s change of position on offshore drilling, even while they applaud his comprehensive energy plan.

The Democratic candidate had staunchly opposed new drilling on the outer continental shelf, but then shifted his position on Friday to say he would be open to some drilling if it were necessary to reach compromise on a broader energy plan — like the one introduced by a bipartisan “Gang of 10” late last week. That plan, which Obama indicated he could support, calls for limited offshore drilling as well as increased investment in clean energy, with the overarching aim of reducing America’s oil dependence.

Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder was quick to criticize Obama’s position switch. “Friends of the Earth Action endorsed Barack Obama in May in large part because he spoke out against the ‘gas tax holiday’ gimmick that would have done nothing to reduce our dependence on oil,” Blackwelder said in a statement Monday afternoon. “That’s why it’s so disappointing to see Obama now say he would consider expanding offshore drilling, even though he knows it is not a real solution to the energy crisis that is devastating our environment and our economy.” Blackwelder also criticized the “Gang of 10” legislation for including funding for liquefied coal and nuclear power.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Adam Kolton, the senior director of congressional and federal affairs for the National Wildlife Federation, says there’s been more than enough compromising on drilling already, pointing to the large portion of the Gulf of Mexico that was opened to drilling in 2006 and the part of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska that President Clinton freed up in 1998. “In the case of the environment, we’ve been compromising,” he said. “I mean, at some point, you can say let’s compromise, but you keep giving away more and more.”

Kolton also criticized the “Gang of 10” plan. “This is like a BLT sandwich with just the lettuce and tomato,” he said. “There’s no bacon. We’ve got to have things that really move us away from our addiction to oil and help solve global warming. This proposal doesn’t get it done.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski knocked the compromise mindset too. “Once we have a new president and more forward-thinking members in the House and Senate, we don’t believe we will need a ‘compromise’ on offshore drilling, which will be yet another giveaway to Big Oil and will provide no relief for hard hit consumers,” said Karpinski in an statement to Grist. “We will resist any effort to pay this ransom which George Bush, John McCain, and Big Oil are demanding in exchange for the release of real investments in clean, renewable energy.”

Now Say Something Nice

But even while they criticized Obama’s drilling switch and components of the “Gang of 10” bill, enviros had lots of nice things to say about Obama’s own comprehensive energy plan, which he detailed during a speech in Lansing, Mich., on Monday. Largely the same as the energy plan Obama had outlined earlier, it would, among other things, create 5 million new green jobs, invest $150 billion in clean energy and job training, require more electricity to come from renewable sources, promote plug-in hybrids and other fuel-efficient cars, and give Americans an “emergency energy rebate” paid for by a windfall-profits tax on oil companies.

Karpinski praised the plan’s “tough measures to truly end our dependence on oil.” Dan Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said Obama’s plan, taken as a whole, is “a vast improvement over what anybody else has proposed.”

A Sierra Club press release on Monday ignored the offshore-drilling issue entirely and simply heaped praise on Obama’s energy platform (and scorn on John McCain’s). “Sen. Obama’s plan will put America on the path to a clean energy future because it prioritizes efforts that will benefit working families instead of the outdated fossil-fuel industries,” said Sierra Club Political Director Cathy Duvall. “Sen. Obama supports creating millions of jobs by investing in the cleanest, cheapest, and fastest technologies to meet our energy needs and stimulate our economy.”

Some enviros even said they could go along with Obama’s new call to release 70 million barrels of oil, or about 10 percent of the stockpile, from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — if the move were part of a comprehensive energy plan and could provide relief for angry Americans. Though he opposed opening the SPR just a few weeks ago, Obama argued on Monday that releasing some oil could lower gas prices within two weeks.

“The short-term problem is that Americans are really hurting on gas prices,” said David Willett, press secretary for the Sierra Club. “It would just be really foolish of us to be completely ignorant of that fact. [Releasing oil from the reserve] would hopefully take some of the pressure off the folks who are feeling pressure, who don’t want to be for drilling but they’re not sure that they have a choice at this point because of public demand.”

A report released Monday by the Center for American Progress Action Fund found that in the 100 days after previous releases from the SPR, the average family saved a significant amount of money on gasoline — $65 following a 1991 release shortly before Desert Storm, and $125 following a release prompted by Hurricane Katrina (adjusted to 2008 dollars).

John McCain and many other Republicans oppose a release from the SPR, arguing that the stockpile should be saved for a genuine emergency.


Weiss pointed out that Republicans didn’t oppose such a move on previous occasions, when advocated by the two presidents Bush. And even if the government sold 70 million gallons out of the SPR today, the reserve would still be 90 percent full, said Weiss. “It’s not posing any risk to our security at all to sell a small amount of oil.”