Coastal Drilling Ban Is Dead: A Post-Mortem

Bill Scher

Congressional leaders have backed down to conservatives and will let the current federal ban on most coastal drilling to completely expire.

What does this mean for our energy policy? What does this say about the congressional leadership and the progressive movement?

1. Sit Back And Watch Gas Prices … Not Drop. I cracked a brief smile when scanning conservative blog reaction to the news, and seeing Stop The ACLU seemingly put down the champagne glass and ask, “When will I see things reflect at the pump?”

The conservative movement got their way with a massive propaganda campaign promising that when we “Drill Here” will we “Pay Less.” They even claimed in August that merely talking about drilling on the House floor was driving prices down. When pressed about how long it would take to extract the minimal oil available, the response was that ending the ban would have “psychological” benefits that would affect the market.

Well conservatives, your bluff has been called. I await a fresh round of excuses and made-up truthiness if gas prices do not significantly drop.

Once it is definitively proven that lifting the ban did nothing to immediately lower our energy costs, it may end up being easier to pass legislation to provide affordable clean energy, and perhaps even reinstate the drilling ban.

2. It’s a Cave-in. Congressional leaders should take serious lumps. They embarked on a smart strategy to turn the tables by putting compromise legislation on the table and smoking out conservatives as hypocrites. It worked, yet they failed to follow through and attack conservatives for obstructing the “All of the Above” energy policy they claimed to support.

They failed to fully read the polls. Yes, drilling propaganda successfully increased support for it. But clean energy still polls better. The public is not narrowly obsessed with drilling the way conservatives literally in bed with Big Oil are. They did not trust that the public would be with them if they forced the issue.

In fairness, the financial crisis is so dominating that it makes it hard to get any other message through. But that also makes it harder for conservatives to follow through on their threat to shut down the government if congressional leaders had renewed the ban in upcoming stopgap financing legislation.

Just this week, the plan was to put a scaled back drilling ban in such a bill — a partial giveaway that would have been even harder for conservatives to shut down the government over. Yet the congressional leadership still flinched.

3. It’s Our Fault Too. While it’s always easy to point the blame at someone else, the broader progressive movement deserves blame as well.

When gas hit $4/gallon, we all should have recognized it was an all-hands-on-deck moment. Public outrage needed to be met with a coordinated plan of action. We had the plans on the shelf — investment in affordable, accessible clean energy to reduce dependence on increasingly expensive oil, along with short-term economic stimulus to help families deal with the spike in costs.

But we didn’t strike first. Newt Gingrich did with his “Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less.” propaganda. If we had seized the moment and framed the debate, his cheap sloganeering would have gone the way of the forgotten gas tax holiday.

Even after that moment, we had counter-arguments to make against the Drill Now dishonesty. Arguments just as simple but more factual — Bush’s Energy Department says more drilling won’t lower prices until 2030. Done.

Those arguments were made, but not in nearly as coordinated and amplified a fashion as the conservative movement adopted “Drill Here. Drill Now.” — with every right-wing radio host, TV commentator, blogger and congressperson driving the message. Similar to Supreme Court nominations, they made drilling their #1 priority. We did not. As a sports commentator would say, they wanted it more.

One thing we should learn from conservatives is to never quit. Keep this in mind: they are still fighting Roe v. Wade after losing repeatedly in the Supreme Court.

The drilling ban is a lost battle. The fight for a clean energy future is far from a lost war.

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