Read Grist’s interview with Nader to find out more about his campaign.


As we begin to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Ike, which forced the shutdown of this country’s oil industry and sent adrift two oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, our members of Congress are poised to vote on legislation this week that would undermine a decades-old ban on offshore oil drilling.

Offshore drilling is severely damaging to the environment, and dangerously vulnerable to turbulent weather and hurricanes. For 27 years, beginning under an initiative signed by Ronald Reagan, our country has managed to protect sensitive parts of our ocean coastlines from the ravages of offshore drilling — a commendable feat considering the many pristine areas of our public lands and ecosystems that have been violated by extractive activities. After initially indicating his intent to uphold the 1981 ban on offshore drilling, Barack Obama, following the example of his Republican rival John McCain, flipped on the issue. This reversal by Obama and McCain could open the door for one of the last remaining vestiges of our country’s natural beauty to be trampled upon by commercial forces.

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The case against offshore drilling has been made time and time again, illustrated by the numerous incidents in which oil rigs have led to ecological destruction and severe contamination of waters. In 2001, for example, an explosion on board the world’s largest oil rig helped sink it to the ocean floor off the coast of Brazil, killing 11 workers and spewing 316,000 gallons of diesel into the Atlantic. These types of spills will no doubt escalate with the increased frequency of violent hurricanes, fueled by global warming.

As for rigs that do manage to stay afloat, the Rainforest Action Network estimates that a single oil rig, in its lifetime, dumps more than 90,000 metric tons of drilling fluid and metal cuttings into the ocean, and may drill up to 100 wells, each dumping 25,000 pounds of toxic metals including lead, chromium, and mercury.

Our country’s coastal wetlands, bays, and beaches — and the many creatures that live in them — are not just in danger from potential big spills, but under threat from the business-as-usual streams of pollution flowing from offshore rigs. If the ban on offshore drilling were reversed, the potential for harm would soon increase significantly.

The biggest strike against offshore drilling this election year is that, contrary to what some candidates would have you believe, it will not reduce gas prices anytime soon, or at all.

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If we are really serious about bringing down gas prices, we should implement long-overdue increases to fuel-efficiency requirements. The Nader/Gonzalez campaign calls for increasing the average efficiency of our gas guzzlers from about 20 miles per gallon to more than 40 mpg over the next five years. That would save us 5 million barrels of oil a day — barrels that do not have to be produced or imported.

On offshore drilling, McCain and Obama differ in a most peculiar way. Obama acknowledges the futility of drilling to reduce gas prices but supports it anyway out of political expediency, in part as a bargaining chip if needed to get a comprehensive energy deal, and in part to take a populist arrow out of McCain’s quiver. McCain, who also once opposed offshore drilling and acknowledged its futility in reducing gas prices, now chooses to ignore what most analysts say concerning offshore drilling: that because of the time it would take oil companies to secure permits, obtain and set up equipment, and conduct research required to extract oil, we won’t start to receive oil shipments or feel the relief of lower gas prices for 10 years. Nor does McCain mention a widely cited report from the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration that predicts peak production of offshore drilling would not be reached until 2030, and would still produce too little oil to affect world oil prices.

The House Committee on Natural Resources released a telling report in June appropriately titled “The Truth About America’s Energy: Big Oil Stockpiles Supplies and Pockets Profits.” In it, the committee points out that there has been a sharp increase in the number of drilling permits issued to oil companies starting in the 1990s and concludes that “there is simply no correlation” between the number of drilling permits issued and the price of gas. Moreover, the report shows that of the 91.5 million acres of federal land being leased to oil companies, nearly 68 million acres are not being worked.

Rather than exposing McCain’s categorical falsehoods and misrepresentations about the issue, Obama — who has thus far in his presidential campaign accepted more than $450,000 from executives and other employees of oil and gas companies (McCain has taken $1.6 million) — instead chooses to ride along with the Republicans and the oil companies. By capitulating to the Republicans, as he has on other matters, he surrenders moral authority on struggles concerning the health, safety, and well-being of individuals and the environment. Obama is not only selling out our environment, but displaying political behavior that does not stand its ground.