Drill, baby, drill!

September 26, 2008

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday voted to lift the generation-old ban on oil drilling on the Outer Contintental Shelf, thus bringing to resolution the year-long ascension of the issue from oil-industry wish list to national policy. Democrats, ostensibly the party in control of both houses of Congress, caved in to a forceful Republican minority, and an even more forceful president, who threatened to veto any spending bills that preserved the moratorium. Offshore drilling became a mantra through the summer, when politicians strove to find a rhetorical palliative to record-high gasoline prices.

The drilling ban was never based on anything that might pass for scientific research. Through the 1970s, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, Washington kept something of an implicit, even-keeled balance between exploiting natural resources and maintaining environmental protection offshore. That changed in January 1981, when President Ronald Reagan nominated James Watt to be Secretary of the Interior. Watt has a distinguished career as secretary, which included kicking the Beach Boys out of a DC Fourth of July celebration, explaining the diversity of his staff by pointing out he employs “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple,” and also by disrupting this unspoken balance between industry and the environment.

Watt moved to open coastal waters to more exploration, breaking the implicit deal, an action met by outrage by the environmental community. The Sierra Club organized a petition campaign to push back Watt’s heavy hand. The trouble was, what did they want to push it back to? As a practical matter, it was difficult to say what the best solution to the problem was; it would take too much time, thought, and effort to try and gerrymander an equitable system of where thou shalt drill and where shalt thou not. So the Sierra Club petition, eventually signed by 1 million Americans, called for moratoria on drilling in U.S. waters off the East and West coasts. The easiest answer was taking the whole OCS off the table.

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