US offshore drilling plans could be a risky play for climate votes

As FT ES predicted last week,  in the wake of the healthcare act’s passage, a loosening of restrictions on US offshore drilling is likely to play a crucial part in Washington’s evolving climate bill. However, its effect on votes is by no means certain.

The New York Times reports the White House has already been briefing legislators about the plans, and President Obama is due to make a formal announcement later on Wednesday. The story confirms expectations that the long-standing moratorium on exploration will be lifted from an area extending from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida:

Under the plan, the coastline from New Jersey northward would remain closed to all oil and gas activity. So would the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border.

The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska would be protected and no drilling would be allowed under the plan, officials said. But large tracts in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska — nearly 130 million acres — would be eligible for exploration and drilling after extensive studies.

The site also has a map of the areas in question.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to supporters of President Obama.  Despite finding himself on the defensive against the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd during the campaign, he always had quite a clear position on this front, as set out in the second presidential debate:

I believe in the need for increased oil production. We’re going to have to explore new ways to get more oil, and that includes offshore drilling. It includes telling the oil companies, that currently have 68 million acres that they’re not using, that either you use them or you lose them.

All the same, this is politically a risky move to be making at this point. Essentially, the administration is hoping to pick up the backing of the petroleum industry and legislators who support it. But the politics of this on the ground is fiendishly complex.

For some legislators, the opening up of offshore drilling in their backyards will be seen as a plus. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who has been the key Republican supporter of a bill, has made little secret of his desire to bring the offshore industry to his home state.

For others, it is a definite negative. The issue is highly divisive in Florida, a crucial swing state in presidential elections. Its senator Bill Nelson was among 10 Democrats who warned in a letter last week that they “cannot support” an expansion of offshore drilling.

In an ominous sign for the bill’s standing with left-leaning Democrats, those 10 votes are clustered in the “nearly certain Yes votes” category laid out by Nate Silver last year. Even an administration flush with its success in bringing anti-abortion Representatives onside over the healthcare bill would have to pause before giving up that swag of votes, particularly as the question remains over whether Lindsey Graham could bring enough Republican senators with him to make up the shortfall.

Looking at the Center for Responsive Politics’ list of the major Washington recipients of oil and gas money, it’s hard to find any Republicans whose votes would be obviously flipped by this move. The only two whose states would actually be affected by today’s announcement, Virginia’s Eric Cantor and South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, are, respectively, the party’s whip in the House of Representatives, and one of the most implacable opponents of an administration he describes as “teetering towards tyranny“.

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