Campaigning in Florida last June as a presidential candidate, then-Senator Barack Obama blasted the proposal of his opponent, Senator John McCain, to open coastal areas of the United States to offshore drilling. Declaring that it "makes no sense at all," Obama correctly stated that such drilling would make very little difference in the price of gasoline, and supported a reduction of fossil fuel use through a stimulus program that would create "green jobs."
But as gasoline prices soared past $4 a gallon and the Republicans campaigned on the issue of "drill here, drill now," the Democratic leadership softened its position. The end result was that a 27-year ban on drilling in coastal areas off the United States was allowed to expire.
President Obama now has an opportunity to reverse this mistake by re-instituting the prior protection of our coastal environment.
Offshore drilling has resulted in millions of gallons of oil spills and other forms of pollution. The expansion of offshore drilling is widely seen as a threat to the coastal environment, as well as tourism and fishing industries. It is also a misplaced priority, given the need for the development of renewable energy, increased energy efficiency, and other solutions that will slow the pace of global climate change.
The way in which the ban on offshore drilling was allowed to expire offers a remarkable case study in the techniques of modern political manipulation. Perhaps even more striking is the way in which the major media outlets enabled this mass deception to succeed, by shirking their fundamental responsibility to report the most relevant facts.
The McCain campaign took advantage of voters’ anger over rising gasoline prices with attack ads directly blaming Obama. "Gas prices – $4, $5, no end in sight, because some in Washington are still saying no to drilling in America," blared one influential McCain TV ad.
McCain made offshore drilling a major issue in the campaign at the time. But there was no empirical basis for the idea that lifting the ban on offshore drilling would significantly affect gasoline prices. Projections from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) found that such drilling would increase world production by about one-fifth of one percent – twenty years from now. The EIA concluded that this was too small to have any significant effect on oil prices.
But most Americans would never get this information. Of 267 major television programs that mentioned the proposed drilling between June 16 and August 9, 2008, only one cited the EIA finding.
As a result, the McCain effort succeeded in shaping public opinion. By the end of July, 69 percent of respondents favored such expanded drilling, and 51 percent said that they believed that "federal laws that prohibit increased drilling for oil offshore or in wilderness areas" were a "major cause of the recent increase in gasoline prices." The response of political candidates to the election-year pressure of misinformed public opinion then led to the change in policy.
But Barack Obama emerged as the winner, and he now has the bully pulpit as president and approval ratings over 80 percent. Gasoline prices are back down to $2.07 a gallon. It shouldn’t be too difficult for him, together with the Democratic Congressional leadership, to simply explain the truth of the matter and re-institute the ban on offshore drilling.
If President Obama is to deliver on his promise of change, he will have to correct a number of major mistakes that were based on the mass dissemination of lies – including most obviously the Iraq war. Restoring the protection of our coastal areas is an easy one. He should do it immediately.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. (www.cepr.net).