WASHINGTON -- The other night, when House Democrats appeared to reverse their long-standing ban on offshore oil drilling, the electorate was hoodwinked again. At least, the Democratic leadership hoped the electorate was hoodwinked.
In August, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was beginning to feel the heat from a citizenry angered by high energy prices, particularly high gasoline prices. Republicans were clamoring for an expansion in drilling. The voters agreed. Thus, the speaker relented and notified endangered House Democrats with fragile electoral margins that they could publicly endorse offshore drilling. Her fallback position was that, midst the clamor for drilling, she simply would not allow a drilling bill to come up for a vote on the House floor. Her environmental allies would be placated. Democrats uneasily holding on to seats in otherwise conservative districts would be placated. And the electorate would be duped.
Unfortunately, the electorate in this time of exorbitant oil prices is not deceived so easily. Republicans recognize expanded drilling for oil is a powerful issue working for them in this election year. Voters paying record-high oil prices in a country where long drives to work are often mandatory favor expanded oil drilling. Speaker Pelosi's ruse was endangering too many of her Democratic colleagues. Thus, she resorted to plan B. The other night, she relented and allowed a drilling bill to come to the floor for a vote. Her Democrats favored it. Republicans generally opposed it.
Ostensibly, the bill will allow drilling as close to our shores as 50 miles in the Atlantic and the Pacific. What is more, it supposedly will finance development of alternative energy sources. But through all the shenanigans, Pelosi's bill will not bring us more oil for a reason that her environmental allies understand perfectly well. Thus, in the aftermath of its passage, as marginal Democrats breathed relief for their endangered seats, few environmentalists were heard complaining.
They know what Pelosi knows. Further oil drilling will be delayed in the courts for years to come. That has been ensured by the fact that such organizations as the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and something called Earthjustice (I am told it is basically a nudist outfit with a few butterfly collectors thrown in, possibly nude butterfly collectors) already have filed hundreds of lawsuits to block further drilling.
In the past when the Democratic leadership complained that additional offshore drilling would not produce more domestic oil, they knew whereof they spoke. Their allies in the environmental movement have lawsuits in place that simply will stop further drilling.
In February 2008, the government issued 487 oil leases for drilling in the Chukchi Sea, near Alaska. Environmental groups resorted to the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act to ensnarl all 487 leases in court challenges. Even once past a court challenge, environmental groups can resort to other legal and bureaucratic roadblocks to hold off the production of oil.
The bill the other night that Democrats, with a wink to environmentalists, approved and Republicans voted against needs provisions to allow drilling to proceed now. Very simply, the bill should have included a provision that would gather up all lawsuits challenging all drilling and would deposit them into one legal case to be argued before one court. Provisions have been resorted to in the past to get on with oil production during times of emergency. In 1973, when faced with an international oil embargo, Congress simply waived environmental laws to allow construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline. Similar ingenuity can be employed today. Speaker Pelosi has been clever in thwarting the electorate's desire for offshore drilling; some 70-80 percent favor it. Perhaps the Republicans and a few Democratic allies can show similar cleverness in beginning drilling now.