Candidates Clash On Impact Of Offshore Drilling

John McCain and Barack Obama
Gabriel Bouys/Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Comparing the Candidates


McCain: He supports offshore drilling as a "short-term" way to help resolve high gas prices. During a speech in Houston, McCain said the U.S. has the know-how and technology to drill offshore without harming the environment. McCain has been accused of "flip-flopping" on this issue; as late as mid-May, McCain said the U.S. instead should focus on developing alternative energy.

Obama: He has said that offshore drilling does not make sense, since it would harm the environment and ultimately would not lower the current price of oil because, he said, this type of oil exploration could take years.

offshore oil rig i i

hide captionThe Molikpaq offshore oil platform, which produces upto 70,000 barrels a day during the six-month ice free season, stands on the sea with floating ice floe offshore of Sakhalin island, Far Eastern Russia, April 27, 2003.

Ursula Hyzy/AFP
offshore oil rig

The Molikpaq offshore oil platform, which produces upto 70,000 barrels a day during the six-month ice free season, stands on the sea with floating ice floe offshore of Sakhalin island, Far Eastern Russia, April 27, 2003.

Ursula Hyzy/AFP

Arizona Sen. John McCain and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama agree on at least one thing: the price of oil is painfully high.

But they differ on what to do about it — particularly whether companies should be allowed to start drilling for oil and gas off the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines. President Bush recently lifted a 27-year ban on offshore drilling, which was created after a major oil spill off the coast of California in 1969.

The candidates were on record about new drilling a month before President Bush lifted the drilling moratorium. In mid-June, in the oil-friendly city of Houston, McCain said that he would call for lifting the federal moratorium for states that "choose to permit exploration."

"I think that this — and perhaps providing additional incentives to permit exploration off their coasts — would be very helpful in the short term for resolving our energy crisis," he said.

Days later, Obama fired back in Jacksonville, Fla., where drilling isn't such a popular idea. "It would have long-term consequences for our coastlines, but no short-term benefits, since it would take at least 10 years to get any oil," he said.

And that's not soon enough, he added: "Offshore drilling would not lower gas prices today."

Drilling To Relieve The Oil Crisis?

No one says that drilling offshore would change gas prices today. The Department of Energy says there may be 18 billion barrels of oil in coastal waters, but they also say that drilling for it would not have a significant impact on production or prices until 2030.

Even people in the oil industry say drilling won't ease the oil pinch. Matthew Simmons is head of Simmons and Company, among the largest banks investing in energy. "We basically wasted away 20 years," he said. "Now, basically, it's a terrific idea, but we ran out the clock. It's really misleading to hold that out as a panacea. It won't work. It might work for our grandchildren."

Geologists have identified reservoirs or undersea "structures" that might contain oil. But Simmons says that's guesswork. "We don't have any idea whether any of it is there," he said.

But first, the government has to lease the offshore sites to oil companies. The companies then have to probe the seabed to find out what's there. Then there are years of exploratory drilling, says Simmons — if anyone can find rigs to do the drilling.

"The problem is that the worldwide capacity to build rigs now has a backlog going out until about 2013, and we won't add enough rigs to even start to replace the very old rig fleet that we have," he said.

All of that before any oil actually comes out of the seabed.

Some in the oil business are more optimistic. Scott Smith is vice president of the energy engineering and construction company Black and Veatch.

"I think it's short-sighted, in my opinion, to say it's not going to make a difference," Smith says. "This is just one piece of the puzzle. We know that there's a lot of uncertainty around how much reserves and production it will bring to bear, but having additional options makes more sense than keeping them off the table."

Smith says it isn't likely that oil companies will actually recover the 18 billion barrels the government estimates is out there. But he says oil exploration is full of surprises.

"As you drill, you learn more about the geology in the region. You tend to find there's more resources there than you first thought," he said.

He also says drilling is only half the job; America also needs to curb its thirst for gas by making vehicles more fuel-efficient.

Candidates On Fuel Efficiency

McCain says there's the psychological lift from knowing the country is trying to replace foreign oil. But Obama counters that the environmental price is too high.

Environmental groups agree. They argue that while there have been few serious spills from rigs, the payoff doesn't justify the risk to beaches and wildlife.

Ultimately, Congress will have to take a stand.

Although the White House has lifted its ban on new drilling, Congress enacted a moratorium beginning in 1982 that only Congress can remove.

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