Duration Of Drilling Moratorium Angers All Sides

A drilling platform is seen near the site where the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf. i i

hide captionA drilling platform is seen near the site where the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A drilling platform is seen near the site where the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf.

A drilling platform is seen near the site where the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

President Obama's approach to domestic oil drilling has shifted over this year. Taken together, those shifts have managed to anger just about everyone in the oil drilling debate at one time or another.

At Andrews Air Force Base in March, Obama surprised many of his supporters with these words: "Today we're announcing the expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration."

"It's risky, it's dangerous, and there's a better way to meet America's energy needs than to engage in a set of activities that are proven to be unsafe," says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

In April, the Deepwater Horizon well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama then declared a one-month moratorium on new deep-water drilling.

And as that month drew to a close, the president said this in the White House Rose Garden: "We will continue the existing moratorium and suspend the issuance of new permits to drill new deep-water wells for six months."

"Why six months? What does that mean?" asks Rayola Dougher, a senior economic adviser for the American Petroleum Institute.

She says the six-month moratorium is devastating the lives of rig workers for no good reason.

"How are you more safe in six months?" Dougher asks. "What do we need to do? None of that was lined up; it was just kind of an arbitrary six-month period."

And on this issue, Brune of the Sierra Club partially agrees with Dougher.

"We're skeptical about whether a six-month moratorium will actually solve the problem or if it's mostly designed to solve the appearance of a problem," Brune says.

Dougher of the Petroleum Institute wants a shorter moratorium. Brune of the Sierra Club wants a longer one. Both sides accuse the White House of shifting with the tide.

But White House energy adviser Carol Browner says that's not what's happening at all.

"As part of breaking our dependence on foreign oil, we needed to look at domestic opportunity," Browner says. "We put forward a plan that would've increased domestic production. And that's all, I think, been consistent throughout the candidacy and the presidency. Obviously, we had an accident occur and we learned things that we didn't know."

She says deep-water drilling is on hold until the administration has the answers to three specific questions: Why did the spill happen? How can future spills be contained? And what's the best way to clean up a spill?

"As we get answers to these questions, there will be a return to drilling," Browner says. "But until we have the answers, we need to maintain this pause."

When asked about the specific six-month time frame, Browner replied, "The time frame is to make sure we have adequate opportunity to get the answers. If we get them sooner, we can lift the moratorium sooner. But we need to get the answers to the questions."

But if there are no answers by Nov. 30, does that mean the moratorium could go longer?

"We have to get the answers," Browner insists. "Whether we get them next week or next month, we need to get the answers."

The Petroleum Institute's Dougher says that proves her point: "Uncertainty is really almost as devastating as the certainty. It makes it very difficult for anyone to move forward with investment decisions. Do I stay in the Gulf? Do I leave? You really need to make that decision sooner than later."

And just as the president is facing questions about his decision to impose the moratorium, there will be questions about his eventual decision to lift it.

The Sierra Club's Brune says his confidence that Obama will do the right thing is "pretty low right now."

Ultimately, whether the moratorium is lifted next month or next year, some will say it is overdue, and others will say it's premature.

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