Drilling Mania

New York City -- According to the Wall Street Journal, Democratic staffers -- as they drafted new, comprehensive energy legislation last week behind closed doors -- could be heard chanting, "drill, drill, drill."  That's right: Democratic staffers.  And at yesterday's Senate Energy Summit, Republican Pete Domenici, a supporter of drilling made a telling observation about the new drilling mania: a few months ago, he noted, he was advising supporters not to use the word drilling, but instead to employ euphemisms like "exploration." In only a few months, drilling has not only become acceptable, it has become a drumbeat in Congress.  With drilling now headlining most of the energy bills percolating in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, it is worth taking a moment to assess how we got to this strange point and what it means.

The immediate trigger of the drilling mania were the McCain ads for drilling and the chanting of "Drill, Baby Drill" at the Republican Convention. On the Democratic side, strategists had meanwhile come to the conclusion that while drilling would neither help energy independence nor lower prices, given the traction it was gaining among the public, it might be good politics to make it less of a partisan issue.  When Senator Obama himself came out in favor of conscientious drilling, drilling became okay for Democrats to support. 

The real question, however, is why the American people have found the idea of drilling so powerful.  For the new drilling mania has come at the expense of the ideal of building a carbon free energy future as championed by Al Gore in his Moon Shot speech in August and as recently as last year, more or less by all three Presidential candidates, Senators Obama, Clinton and McCain.  Surely, fossil fuel prices are volatile and have been steadily rising for years (though they dropped 30% in the last 60 says, due in part to the pricking of a speculative bubble.)  Surely, the United States pays a heavy strategic price for our dependence on products produced by some of our least favorite countries.  And surely, fossil fuels are harming the earth's climate, probably contributing to storms such as Gustav and Ike.  Senator McCain recognized last summer that drilling was a political winner and began a wholesale retreat from his original energy positions.  But only part of the explanation for drilling mania is the relentless Republican messaging.

At the root of the primitive appeal of drill, drill, drill is a desire to return to our oil-soaked past.  While Americans seemed ready to flirt with renewables, with push coming to shove, they have sought the safety and security of the girl who brung us to the party: oil. There is only one problem with this desire to return to the inexpensive, American produced oil and gas of our past.  It is fantasy. 

At yesterday's hearing, Shell President Marvin Vodum frankly admitted that currently there are only 30 deep water rigs on earth and every one is already in use.  No new exploration will be even theoretically possible until new rigs are built.  He estimated that in 10 years the number of these expensive, high-tech rigs might double or triple. Still, the idea that 30 or even 70 more offshore rigs over the next decade will make America energy independent or have any impact on the price of oil is absurd.  The oil that lies deep offshore, a mile or more below the surface of the ocean, is more difficult and expensive to tap by several orders of magnitude than the oil that brung us to the party.  Oil industry executives acknowledge this and also know that opening up more of America's coastline and Alaska for drilling is something they have to be for but the idea won't yield a penny of net revenue--what they are in business to produce--for years.  What they really seek is relief from litigation of projects and Vodum led with this in his testimony.  But that doesn't have the emotional appeal of drill, drill drill. 

Is there any harm in a little old time affection for the fuel of the past?  Yes, if it interferes with our commitment to developing the fuels and economy of our future.  There is a huge new opportunity for all Americans in renewable energy.  A new report suggests it may produce millions of high paid jobs.  Rededicating ourself to oil, frankly, interferes with this critical transition.

The thrust of the compromise being pressed by the bi-partisan Gang of Ten, now 20, is that energy needs in the future will be diverse and we must do all of the above, oil, nuclear and renewables.  With respect to the need for diverse sources they are right.  However, the all-of-the-above approach, while it may garner votes, avoids the hard choices in allocating what are ultimately scarce taxpayer dollars between the new and old energy alternatives.

As Senator Dorgan and others observed, subsidies for oil and nuclear energy in the form of exploration credits and insurance for the nuclear industry vastly exceed that for renewables.  The incumbent technologies with their large constituencies have stable, long term subsidies in place whereas wind and solar energy have suffered from on again, off again, support.  That must change.  And, of course, as we learned last week, relations between oil companies and federal overseers at the Department of the Interior, are more than cozy (involving outright payola.)

In the next week, it is likely that legislation will come to the floor.  While drilling is likely to be part of the package, it is vitally important that Congress keeps in mind the real goal here, to wean ourselves off of dirty fuels and build the low carbon economy of the future.