Editorial: To drill, or not to drill

Posted July 28, 2008, at 12 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 28, 2011, at 12:12 a.m.

Oil was $12 per barrel when Federico Pena was the nation’s energy secretary in the Clinton administration. Mr. Pena is now a co-chairman of the Obama campaign and an adviser to the candidate on energy and transportation issues. And while he doesn’t believe his advice will bring back cheap oil, he believes Sen. Obama’s energy plan will move the U.S. toward energy independence faster than Sen. John McCain’s plan.

Mr. Pena is contacting newspapers this week on behalf of the Obama campaign to counter TV advertisements the McCain campaign is airing which blame Obama for high prices at the pump. Specifically, Sen. McCain is criticizing his opponent for not wanting to lift the congressional ban on offshore oil drilling.

Lifting the congressional ban — President Bush has already lifted the executive order ban signed by his father — is more symbolic than substantive, the Obama camp argues, and worse, it could distract the public from the urgent need to move to alternative fuels. Oil companies hold leases to explore and drill for oil on federal lands far in excess of what they can undertake in the short term.

Symbols are important currency in governing, but suggesting to consumers that huge untapped oil reserves are available off shore is the wrong message to send because it is not accurate. At the same time, Sen. Obama should approach the drilling question with an “at this time” position, and keep an open mind to possible changes.

In a recent telephone conversation with the Bangor Daily News, Mr. Pena reiterated Sen. Obama’ s energy plan and delineated immediate steps and intermediate and long-term moves. Under immediate, Mr. Pena puts a second federal economic stimulus check, sending $50 billion out into the U.S. economy over the next three to nine months, which the Obama camp believes would ease many households’ energy bill worries.

Intermediate fixes include closing the so-called Enron loophole that allows oil and gas prices to be driven in part by speculation. As president, Obama would also extend tax breaks for consumers buying hybrid and plug-in vehicles, and double the fleet gas mileage ratings of Detroit’ s Big Three.

Sen. Obama would restore an arrangement in place when Mr. Pena was energy secretary which had federal nuclear scientists on loan to U.S. automakers, he said, to help them increase fuel efficiency. Mr. Obama also would accelerate the push for appliance manufacturers to make energy-efficient products.

In the long term, the Obama plan calls for the federal government to invest $150 billion in new energy technology over the next 10 years. The government now spends $3 billion a year on this endeavor, Mr. Pena said.

“There really is no silver bullet,” Mr. Pena said. “We’ ve got to be flexible.”

Sen. Obama’ s position on offshore drilling is correct, but he should heed Mr. Pena’ s advice and remain flexible as the U.S. lurches toward a new energy portfolio.

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