Last Wednesday, conservatives held coast-to-coast "TEA parties" designed to send the message to Washington and state governments that the partiers feel "taxed enough already." The exercise struck me as more than a little out of touch with the political realities of President Barack Obama's America. The next day, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar held a public hearing in San Francisco on a proposal by the George W. Bush administration to sell federal leases to drill for oil and gas off the California coast. The hearing became the Left Coast equivalent of the right-wing TEA party.
The only difference is that the overwhelmingly anti-drilling crowd was in la-la land on the realities of oil instead of taxes. Every one of the elected officials who spoke was an anti-drilling Democrat. Every one seemed out of touch with the realities of the need to increase domestic oil production.
America's in a tough recession. It's in no position to turn down high-paying jobs and tax revenue, not to mention a way to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. Here's a sobering statistic: U.S. imported oil use grew from 24 percent in 1970 to 70 percent last year.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, I believe, spoke for all the other anti-drilling Democratic politicians -- there were no Republican or pro-oil pols -- when he said that supporting more oil and gas drilling "sends the wrong message."
Message? Americans use more oil than we produce. Doesn't that send the most powerful message of all? And then there's the message sent last September, when the Democratic Congress allowed a moratorium on new offshore drilling to lapse because of high gasoline prices. In July, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 51 percent of Californians supported new drilling off the California coast. Less than a year later, California politicians are banking on the fact that voters have short memories, as they argued that more drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf would be bad for California's economy.
Rep. Barbara Lee criticized former President George W. Bush for policies that made America "hostage" to foreign oil, unperturbed by the fact that California gets 45 percent of its oil from foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Of course, the Dems talked up wind, solar and wave power as the proper alternatives to more oil. But when Salazar asked whether they would support wind power, Kulongoski admitted Oregonians have an "aesthetic issue" with wind. His people like wave power, which the Department of the Interior sees as nascent. That is, his people like the kind of renewable offshore energy that does not exist here.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey answered that she could accept wind power "if it's not harmful to the environment" and it's visually acceptable. Remember the circus that followed plans to build a wind farm in Nantucket Sound, with the otherwise-environmentally sensitive Kennedy family in opposition? The arguments that drilling critics have used -- as in, drilling is bad for tourism -- may well be used against wind turbines.
Rep. Jackie Speier and Sen. Barbara Boxer complained that oil companies aren't drilling in all the areas already leased. I don't get it. Big Oil pays for the leases, so if they don't drill -- for economic reasons, I assume -- why do No Oilers complain?
Accidents? Boxer brought up the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif., and another Santa Barbara spill in 2008. Salazar's Interior Department, however, has issued a report that notes the industry's record "shows good results in preventing and minimizing spills." It also cites a 2003 National Research Council report that found "offshore oil and gas development was responsible for only 2 percent of the petroleum found in the marine environment for North America." That's right, folks. Mother Nature also puts oil in the ocean.
My guess is that Salazar will approve new leases for the Gulf Coast, where people value oil jobs more than B & Bs. But as for California, how can President Obama refuse the wishes of Democrats in a state that demands cheap gas to fuel its car culture and then says no to more oil drilling at the voting booth?
Salazar noted in a news conference Thursday that oil, natural gas and coal are going to be part of America's energy mix for years to come. He's right, so the issue is: Where will America get its oil?
When it was Western States Petroleum Association President Joe Sparano's turn to talk, Salazar saluted him for appearing before the hostile crowd and then exhorted the room to give Sparano "a round of applause." The sound that followed was not clapping. Some people held up dollar bills. Sparano had crashed their party.
Sparano noted that California produces about 800,000 barrels of oil a day but consumes almost twice that amount of oil. The Department of the Interior estimates that there are some 10 billion barrels of "technically recoverable" oil off the West Coast. That's enough, Sparano argued, to replace California's foreign oil use for 35 years. If he's half-right, then think of the gains for California and the losses for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
The only other morning speaker who supported California oil drilling was Van Bivans, who runs a Super 8 motel in Goleta, Calif. He said that he remembers what $4-a-gallon gas did to area businesses last year and that "many businesses could go under" if gas prices reach that level again. Some in the room hissed.