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Oil autonomy coming

By Geoffrey Wright

April 15, 2010 9:31 pm

Obama just cannot seem to catch a break.

His announcement March 31 that the U.S. would open vast portions of the Eastern seaboard, the Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Arctic to oil exploration in conjunction with investment in nuclear and alternative fuels, seems like it would garner bipartisan support.

Instead, Obama’s announcement has drawn criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. Some conservatives in Congress offered tempered praise, but have been quick to add that the announcement doesn’t go far enough by keeping the Pacific coast and parts of Alaska off-limits. Environmental groups have taken a different tone expressing their disapproval, arguing that it poses an environmental risk far outweighing the benefits while doing little to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

While Obama may not have succeeded in making many new friends, the reaction from Republicans is hardly unexpected. With Republicans poised to gain a number of seats in the fall’s midterm elections, it appears unlikely they’ll support much of anything on Obama’s agenda. This in spite of the fact that Obama’s stance on offshore drilling and overall energy policy looks surprisingly similar to McCain’s 2008 campaign plan.

Obama didn’t come to Washington to make friends, however, and that may not have been his intention with this apparent concession to conservatives in Congress. Instead, it allows Obama to frame energy policy on his own terms, something he failed to do sufficiently with health care. It also has the potential to corner Republicans in Congress, forcing them to make concessions of their own or risk appearing obstructionist and overly partisan.

On the other end of the political spectrum, the plan is taking heat from environmental groups that argue that it’s a step backward from becoming energy-independent and combating climate change, as it provides an incentive for our economy to remain dependent on fossil fuels.

Taken at face value, this argument certainly has merit. After all, if Obama is serious about making the U.S. a leader in clean energy and reducing emissions, investing in the crux of the problem seems like a backward way to get there.

Maintaining the delicate balance between promoting your agenda and alienating the opposition is of utmost importance to remaining effective. Obama overplayed his hand with health care and a year-long debate ensued that severely damaged his political capital. Obama is hoping that extending an olive branch forces the GOP’s hand and allows him to pass more sweeping measures on carbon emissions and renewable energy. He also understands that with Republicans poised to gain a number of seats in the House, and perhaps even a majority, his window of opportunity may be closing more quickly than he imagined.

Obama is taking a substantial risk. He must parlay the political capital he gains into enacting a more comprehensive bill aimed at regulating carbon emissions and inducing investment in alternative energy technology. If Obama fails, his pledge to position the U.S. as a leader in climate policy and alternative energy will provide a stark example of a failed promise just as new oil rigs go up off the coast of Virginia.

This failure would represent more than a loss in political efficacy. It would be a major blow for the interests of the U.S. and world as a whole. While no scientist can claim to know exactly how and to what extent the effects of global climate change will be felt over the next century, even the most optimistic models ““ based on carbon dioxide emissions remaining at their 2005 levels ““ would correspond to a rise in mean temperature of around 5 degrees Fahrenheit in the coming century.

If one needs any convincing of what this could mean for the U.S., look no further than California. The country’s most populous and wealthiest state has been hit by what some scientists, including UCLA Professor Glen Macdonald, call a “perfect drought.” This occurs when a regional drought in California is coupled with prolonged periods of drought along the Colorado River basin, and some fear this may be the “new normal” for California. The country’s largest agricultural producer risks becoming a desert; perhaps it may already be too late.

Regardless of one’s own views on global climate change, two facts are indisputable. Oil is a finite resource, and countries around the globe must prepare for the inevitable day when oil becomes too expensive to be a viable energy source. The country that takes the lead in alternative energy technologies will have significant advantage in the 21st century, and the U.S. has thus far been slow to act. In 2009, China outspent the United States by a ratio of almost 2-to-1 in clean energy investments, and we lagged behind 10 other countries in clean-energy investments as a share of national economy.

Obama is making a calculated move in playing the role of centrist in a goal to win support and force Republicans in Congress to get on board with his broader energy agenda.

If he succeeds in passing a substantial bill that puts the U.S. on a path to true energy independence and efficiency, then it will be a monumental victory for his administration and a step forward for the U.S. If he fails, it could be the coup de grâce of his presidency. Here’s hoping he catches a break.

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Geoffrey Wright
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