Wednesday, March 31, 2010

US: Obama's terrible decision on oil drilling

I must admit, I just don't see what public benefit the Obama administration believes it will generate by opening large portions of the US coastline to oil exploration.

The private benefits to oil companies, of course, could be huge. And perhaps that's the whole explanation behind the decision right there.

Yet when announcing the decision today, Obama made noises about this decision being a step towards American energy security, and part of a long-term energy strategy. So let's examine those claims.

First, this decision is supposed to be sensitive to environmental concerns. In theory, the Department of the Interior will regulate the oil exploration to protect the environment. But there is really no reason not to expect regulators to be captured by the oil industry in exactly the same way that regulators were captured by the financial industry in the years leading up to the 2008-09 financial crisis. Environmental watchdog groups are unlikely to be able to muster much resistance, precisely because any damage done to the environment will be dozens of miles off coast and therefore invisible to local residents.

Second, the decision supposedly helps America's energy security. But as Obama points out, the US has less than 2 percent of global reserves but consumes 20 percent of global production. Drilling now only means that America's dwindling reserves will be used faster.

Even worse, the decision does harm to America's energy security. It gives US industry a greater stake in oil, thereby perpetuating the cycle of political resistance to policies and technology that would shift America away from oil. It delays even further the day when the US car and truck fleet runs on electricity, natural gas, or a renewable biofuel.

Finally, despite being sold as a temporary stop-gap, exploratory drilling is unlikely to happen for at least five years and commercial production is even further away. So instead of providing a short-term, temporary supply of oil, Obama's decision instead sends a long-term signal to world markets that there is less incentive to invest in oil production in other parts of the world.

In theory, Obama's move might be part of a larger strategy for getting a meaningful climate change law passed by Congress. Yet it's unclear the current Senate bill on climate counts as "meaningful", even if it does pass. And if this is a political overture from Obama to independents or Republicans, it seems like a terrible time for an attempt at bipartisanship: senior Republican Senators have already sworn to refuse cooperate with the Administration, and are already condemning today's decision.

So color me skeptical: it looks very much like energy strategy and environmental concerns are being thrown under the bus for short-term economic interests. Not that we should be surprised, of course.