President Obama recently announced a plan to open up huge areas of America's coastal oceans to offshore drilling. Almost immediately, and somewhat predictably the President drew the ire of both environmentalists and of the "Drill, baby drill!" crowd. However when looking at the stated motivation for Obama's decison, the realization came that this is an issue where educated, informed people can disagree. First it would be prudent to stake out the two hard-line positions on oil production in general.
There are those that want everyone to stop using oil immediately. This camp sees the long-term consequences of unlimited fossil fuel production and consumption as catastrophically threatening to our future on this planet. This position is right to an extent, as scientific studies increasingly paint a dire future connected to carrying on business as usual in regards to fossil fuels. The blind spot of this position is that transitions of such a magnitude take time, energy and massive investment. In other words, the transition will not happen by magic or by snapping our collective fingers and clicking our heels. The necessary changes will require rational, informed decision making by our leaders and creative engagement in solutions by the American public.
Also, There are those that think the fossil fuel party will never end. This camp sees a drive towards renewable energy as threatening to our economy and to our way of life. They are right to an extent, as radical changes that ignore that much of modernity that we take for granted has been built on the availability of cheap fossil fuels. The blind spot of this position is that America, and the world cannot thrive in the next few centuries without conceding to the reality that we have to live in balance with natural systems rather than living opposed to them.
As these are the two fundamental assertions that drive the debate, the question becomes, what is not being examined and what conditions on this plan should we as Americans push for? In other words, what can rational people on both sides of the political fence agree on? Here are three bits of gristle for the mind, that help to frame the debate more holistically.
1. In the current geopolitical situation, America needs to become more self-reliant in terms of energy production. We should be able to use our own resources and lessen our dependence on other regions of the world for our energy needs. Business as usual feeds our trade deficit and makes us vulnerable to even minor global supply disruptions. American becoming more self-sufficient allows us to transition to a clean energy economy without being at the mercy of global instability.
2. In America, we have some of the strongest environmental standards of any of the oil producing nations. This is good policy, and can always be strengthened. In real terms, as a result of our environmental practices with offshore drilling, the last major spill related to this method of development happened in 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA. Any new production must be done with the same attention to safety and standards that has allowed us the US to have such a good domestic safety record in regards to oil. Therefore, it is critical that any offshore drilling be done with the caveat that oil producers be legally and financially on the hook for any clean-up related to their activities. At the core of this is the assertion that we as a country do not want to export environmental damage to the rest of the world for our own gain, which is what we are currently doing.
3. The US President is ideally the servant leader of all Americans, not just his party and certainly not just one political interest group or another. So the question becomes, does Obama's decision fit this ideal? What is his motivation? After going through the rote responses of "He's in the pocket of the oil companies," or "He's just doing this to back Republicans in the corner", a more nuanced motivation becomes clear. Obama is working to chart the post-partisanship that he promised. He is pushing for a "Third Way" which is naturally going to make both sides not getting their full way very angry. In fact, the President directly spoke to this in announcing this decision, here are his words. “Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place," "Because this issue is just too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again.”“There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling, But what I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy. And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and long term. To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake.”
It seems that the President's motivation is clear and direct, and ultimately, this policy can be judged by whether or not it contains these three elements,
1. All oil produced must be refined and sold in the US.
2. Oil companies are on the hook for any damage because of spills, and they are held to strict environmental standards in setting up their derricks.
3. That this is the transition to a very strong renewable energy investment, production and distribution plan for the US. In other words, this oil is the concession to the reality that transformation doesn't happen overnight, but it is also the bridge to a future where such drilling is unnecessary.
Enjoy the cognitive dissonance!