Nobody should applaud the surrender by congressional Democrats this week on offshore drilling. The Democratic-controlled House voted Wednesday to toss aside a 26-year ban on drilling off the East and West coasts. Most of those federal waters have been off-limits to oil and gas exploration since 1982. But a spending bill the House approved this week removed the moratorium, freeing the Bush administration to negotiate with oil companies over leases off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
That leaves Florida with one less shield against drilling. The measure, which is expected to be approved by the Senate, does not affect the 2006 law that protects Florida's eastern Gulf Coast from drilling within 234 miles of Tampa Bay and 125 miles off the Panhandle through 2022. While that is good news for Florida and the Tampa Bay area, there are larger environmental, economic and political issues to consider.
Containing the environmental risks of drilling and servicing offshore rigs is not as simple as drawing a line across state and federal waters. Moreover, any production is years away from affecting fuel prices, which is lost in the public clamor over $4-a-gallon gas. The Democrats' move was less about energy than political consumption. With people suffering at the pump, they want to appear proactive and silence the Republicans, for whom "drill, baby, drill" has become the fight song in the November presidential election.
Democrats are right that, as a practical matter, lifting the ban now could prove harmless. It would take years for the government and the oil companies to negotiate any lease and for drilling to begin. And if the move stanches support for John McCain and throws votes to Barack Obama, so much the better, for it would enable Democrats to more easily revisit the ban once they held both the White House and Capitol Hill.
But first things first: The House gave away a quarter-century's worth of coastal protection to get Republicans to go along with a stopgap spending bill. And it is a gamble putting the calendar ahead of principle. The rollback moves the goal posts for any future compromise. With drilling on the table, the issue becomes not whether, when or how but how far from the beaches and how much money for the states. It also raises the stakes for Florida. At some point, the other states point and ask: What's so special about the Sunshine State?
The answer will require a trip to the beach. At sunset.