By Marc Pitzke in New York
John McCain has discovered the environment. The Republican candidate for president is suddenly a friend of the environment and a proponent of climate protection. Donning his new green mantle, he has taken to tramping through giant rainforests in the northwestern United States, inspecting wind farms and portraying himself as one of the first politicians to have "sounded the alarm about global warming."
Oil extraction in California: Will offshore drilling soon increase if McCain is elected?
Hardly a day goes by without McCain proclaiming some new idea to protect the environment, from strict greenhouse gas emission limits to new automobile technologies. From one day to the next, he touts the benefits of nuclear energy, wind energy, solar cells, biodiesel and even coal. At times he lumps everything together, as he did recently when he rattled off a motley staccato of proposals as part of his "great national campaign to achieve energy security for America."
But with his latest idea, McCain is hoping to reduce his opponent Barack Obama's lead in the polls. It amounts to a single word: oil.
Or rather: more oil, and not just from the Middle East, but also from domestic production.
To achieve this new goal, McCain wants to lift a 26-year-old ban that protects the continental shelf off the US coastline against oil exploration. According to McCain: "We have enormous energy reserves of our own. And we are gaining the means to use these resources in cleaner, more responsible ways."
It sounds logical and consistent enough at first glance, but in truth it is an about-face fraught with consequences, because it completely thwarts McCain's new eco-offensive.
McCain Says He Would Lift Protections
Since 1982, oil exploration has been banned on the "outer continental shelf" (OCS) of the United States, the extension of the North American continent that drops down to a depth of 200 meters (656 feet) below sea level. At the time, the Republican-controlled US Congress enacted an environmental moratorium against offshore drilling for oil and gas. The moratorium, which has been repeatedly renewed since then, allows for only a few exceptions, such as the Gulf of Mexico. In 1990, the year after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster, US President George H.W. Bush signed an executive order creating a second, presidential moratorium. His successor, Bill Clinton, extended that moratorium until 2012. This double set of coastal protections is one of the US's longest-running environmental policies.
But now McCain is convinced that by doing away with these protections, he has found the new silver bullet against exploding oil and gasoline prices. He also wants to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the US's northernmost protected region, to oil drilling. This unique ecosystem has enormous oil reserves, and exploiting them has been the subject of controversy for decades.
McCain calls concerns over coastlines, beaches and the wilderness obsolete, claiming that oil production has become so safe "that not even hurricanes Katrina and Rita could cause significant spillage from battered rigs off the coasts of New Orleans and Houston."
It is no coincidence that McCain chose Houston, the oil capital of the United States, to announce his new idea to a group of oil-company executives -- the heads of the same corporations that have already singled out McCain as the focus of their political campaign spending, donating $1.5 million (960,000) to his campaign to date.
Paradoxically, McCain's claims about Katrina and Rita are untrue. According to the US Coast Guard, the two hurricanes caused the spillage of about 2.7 million liters (713,340 gallons) of petroleum products into the Gulf of Mexico from destroyed drilling platforms.
In 1999, when he was a candidate in the Republican presidential primaries, McCain supported the oil drilling moratoriums. And until now, he has also been opposed to drilling in the ANWR. But oil, gasoline and energy are currently the dominant topic in the United States, and not just in the election campaign. The balance between environmental protection and oil production is tipping -- in favor of oil production.
Support from an Uncomfortable Source
Thus, it comes as no surprise that, after his speech in Houston, McCain received support from someone from whom he has in fact tried to distance himself: President George W. Bush, whose father pronounced the moratorium in 1990.
Bush Jr. also wants to open the OCS and the Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil production -- a long-cherished dream for the current president. He has even sought to pass the buck to the Democratic majority in Congress, saying that only if Congress lifts its moratorium will he lift his presidential moratorium. And if Congress refuses to cooperate, says Bush, it will be the fault of the Democrats, who "will need to explain why $4-a-gallon gasoline is not enough incentive for them to act."
Florida Governor Charlie Crist, a possible running mate for McCain, as well as other influential Republicans have taken up the cause of those who endorse drilling. Since then, McCain has repeated his offensive on a daily basis, even adding another argument to the mix: Exploitation of the US's offshore oil reserves, McCain claims, would have positive "psychological impact" on beleaguered consumers.
Rival Barack Obama, closing ranks with his fellow Democrats in Congress, dismisses McCain's proposals as nothing but a "campaign gimmick." As to the so-called psychological effects, Obama calls this nothing but Washington jargon for 'it'll do well in the opinion polls.'
On that count, at least, Obama is right. Gasoline prices have jumped dramatically since March, and since then the share of US citizens who support drilling for oil in protected coastal waters has increased from 42 to 72 percent. And, according to a recent poll by the Zogby Institute, 59 percent of Americans support oil exploration in Alaska.
Environmentalist Fear Damage
The willingness to sacrifice nature to oil grows in proportion to the increase in prices at the pump. Very few pay attention to the details, and there is hardly any debate over the predicted capacities of the fields.
The US government estimates that between 16 billion and 18 billion barrels of oil can be produced in the coastal regions in question. According to an announcement by the White House, this would double domestic production over the next decade.
In contrast, however, a 2007 analysis by the government's Energy Information Administration (EIA) concluded that even the offshore reserves "would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030." According to the EIA study, it would take this long to complete the necessary geological and technical preparatory work, dashing all hopes of any quick reduction in gasoline prices.
Environmentalists and coastal towns also fear the potential for beach pollution and creating eyesores in tourist areas. Californians still remember a 1969 spill from a drilling platform near Santa Barbara that deposited an oil slick onto 35 miles (60 kilometers) of coastline. The disaster led to the creation of the first Earth Day in 1970 and accelerated the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Nevertheless, even the proponents of drilling have one moral argument on their side: Why does the United States forbid offshore exploration off its own coasts but has no scruples about burning oil from places like Nigeria or Ecuador, where it is produced with no consideration whatsoever for the environment?
"Is it fair to outsource our environmental problems?" the New York Times asked. And as author Peter Maas wrote three years ago, also in the New York Times: "We demand clean beaches and untouched wildernesses at home but live in an energy-intensive fashion that leads other countries to sacrifice their waters and forests."
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