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Coastal Oil Drilling Becomes US Campaign Issue


President Bush and Republican presidential candidate John McCain are both calling for an end to a moratorium on developing oil and natural gas resources along much of the U.S. coastline. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama opposes such a move, saying the country needs to move away from oil. Meanwhile, public-opinion polls show U.S. consumers favoring more development of domestic resources to offset high fuel prices. VOA's Greg Flakus has more on the story from Houston.

Energy has become one of the main issues clearly dividing the two U.S. political parties as they prepare for their national conventions. With oil trading on the world market at above $130 a barrel, U.S. consumers are feeling the economic impact at the gasoline pump and in increased food prices.

During a speech Tuesday in Houston, Senator John McCain called for an end to a moratorium on energy development in coastal areas.

"The broad federal moratorium stands in the way of energy exploration and production," he said.

The ban, which has been in effect since 1981, covers more than 80 percent of the U.S. coastline and the outer continental shelf. The ban was put in place to reduce the chances of environmental damage from oil spills and in part to protect the tourist industry. Senator McCain once opposed development in coastal areas, but he says the rapidly rising cost of fuel makes it necessary.

"As a matter of fairness to the American people and a matter of duty for our government, we must deal with the here and now and assure affordable fuel for America by increasing domestic production," he added.

Senator Barack Obama responded in a chat with reporters on board his campaign plane Tuesday, criticizing McCain for changing his position on the issue from his earlier stance and deriding the notion that offshore oil development would reduce the energy crunch.

"There is no way that allowing offshore drilling would lower gas prices right now," he said. "At best you are looking at five years down the road."

In a conference call with reporters, former Democratic Governor of Iowa and Obama supporter Tom Vilsack accused McCain of pandering to voters rather than providing a long-term energy solution.

"It is clear that the strength of this country is going to be dependent on us moving away from oil, not towards more oil," he said.

Energy sector analysts say both sides in this debate have legitimate points, but that the high cost of fuel is likely to influence voters in favor of more drilling.

One man who has a politically neutral perspective, is Charles Groat, who teaches at the University of Texas and served as director of the U.S. Geological Survey under both Presidents Clinton and Bush. He says the potential of the coasts is shown by the vast amounts of oil that have been extracted with little environmental impact from offshore sites in the Gulf of Mexico.

"You have got to think that, with modern exploration techniques, the chances for finding substantial amounts of oil and gas off both our east and west coasts has got to be significant, but they have to have a chance to try and with the moratorium that is not happening these days," he noted.

Groat acknowledges that it may take a few years to find the oil and begin developing the infrastructure to extract it, but he says that oil could be very welcome in a few years if energy prices keep climbing, as they surely will given global demand.

As for alternative energy, Groat says there is nothing on the horizon at present that would substantially replace the need for oil and gas.

"I think the missing consideration in the real push towards alternatives is that demand growth for traditional fuels, transportation fuels in particular, is substantial in the United States and globally as well," he added. "That is not going to abate even if we do have some fairly effective conservation moves. So the demand for traditional hydrocarbons is going to grow, not shrink, even if we move more and more into alternatives."

Groat says failure to address the issue of rising energy costs could lead to a severe economic downturn.

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