One of the more disconcerting images from the Republican National Convention featured delegates reducing their call for a national energy policy to chants of "Drill, baby, drill!" Now congressional Democrats are panicking and rushing "comprehensive'' energy bills to a vote.
Let's be clear: The bills would not promptly lower gasoline prices in a meaningful way, make America much more energy independent, or significantly encourage conservation, mass transit or the production of clean, renewable energy. Democrats in Washington are placing short-term politics above long-term policy at the expense of Florida's environment and economy.
At least four bills that may be moving through the House and Senate in the next two weeks seek to do the same thing: paint Congress as responsive on energy and allow the two major political parties to portray themselves as more sensitive to high gas prices. But this is hardly a comprehensive energy strategy. The incentives for conservation and mass transit are window-dressing for the unacceptable — provisions to open up offshore drilling.
The proposals would end the 26-year federal ban against oil and gas drilling off most of the nation's coast. They also could upend a 2006 law that keeps oil rigs 230 miles off Tampa Bay and 125 miles off the Florida Panhandle — although Florida Democrats said Wednesday they believe they have persuaded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to hold that line. Those protections are critical to preserving Florida's environment, its fisheries and its $65-billion tourism industry. Beyond the potential for ecological and economic damage, Congress is showing a stunning lack of leadership on an issue that affects every American household and the nation's security. One version would allow states to decide whether to allow drilling within 50 miles — as if the effect of an environmental disaster or even routine operations could be contained in the waters off a single state.
Congressional leaders are denying the nation a serious discussion of its energy choices. It is no wonder more Americans warmed to offshore drilling in the wake of $4-a-gallon gas. But crude prices have dropped 30 percent from their peak in July. Most analysts predict opening protected waters would have little impact on supply, prices and the nation's overall energy picture. Production would not begin for at least a decade, and even a report by President Bush's Energy Department said new drilling "would not have a significant impact" on prices any time soon. Gas prices could drop two-tenths of a penny a gallon — in 2030. It is simply not worth it.
Lawmakers should not make decisions that could scar Florida's landscape amid the politics of the moment — or, more accurately, the realities of yesterday. Indeed, the price of crude fell again Wednesday, even after OPEC announced it would curb production. The softening in demand has outpaced the rationale to open up new drilling offshore. The International Energy Agency on Wednesday lowered its forecast for global oil demand for both this year and 2009. And an independent report released Wednesday by Congress said the surge in oil prices, and later decline this year, were caused mainly by investors speculating in oil trades, not by supply and demand for oil.
If the Democratic leadership is serious about passing legislation before the election, it needs to craft a visionary energy policy — not one primarily aimed at silencing mindless chants for more oil drilling.