President Barack Obama is willing to sacrifice Florida and other coastal states for a far-reaching energy bill. His call on Wednesday to vastly expand drilling for gas and oil off the Florida coast is an unreasonable concession in a bid to win congressional support for more responsible energy policies, from investing in clean-energy technologies to capping greenhouse gas emissions. Embracing more oil drilling sends the wrong message, carries too many environmental risks and will not make the nation much more energy independent.
Obama unveiled a sweeping plan to open up waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, along the south Atlantic coast (including Florida) and off northern Alaska to new oil and gas exploration. Administration officials said the plan was the first step toward a comprehensive strategy to move the nation away from its reliance on foreign oil. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the move would create jobs, diversify America's energy supply and strengthen national security. He insisted drilling would not occur in environmentally sensitive areas or affect military training. But drilling out of sight of the coastline does not mean out of mind or out of danger.
This is a political gamble by Obama to win more Senate support for a broader energy bill. The House approved a bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions last year, but that legislation is dead in the Senate. Drilling would be a carrot in a reworked emissions bill for Republicans who embrace the "Drill, baby, drill!" mantra. The president who refused to bend on health care reform is willing to compromise too much to win another big victory in Congress. But he is not likely to win much Republican support even if he agrees to ring the nation with oil rigs.
The proposal would require Congress to overturn a 2006 law that keeps oil drilling 234 miles from Tampa Bay and 125 miles south of the Panhandle through 2022. That compromise opened more than 8 million acres in the eastern gulf to exploration that has yet to begin. Obama's proposal would clear the way for exploration 125 miles off the entire gulf coast. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who was instrumental in pushing the 2006 law, was cautiously supportive of Obama's plan. He is being politically practical, but he should not back down after years of fighting the good fight.
Never mind that the eastern gulf has less oil than America consumes in a year. Any supplies would not make a dent in the price of fuel at the pump. But moving the boundary east would shift the next fight over drilling even closer to land. It certainly emboldens Republicans in the Florida Legislature to resume their rush to open up state waters to drilling.
Obama is to be commended for moving quickly after health care to reshape the nation's energy policy. But a strategy for the 21st century should not rise or fall on fossil fuel. The president gave up too much, too early, for bipartisan support he is not likely to win. He needs to plow ahead with the argument that matters: Clean energy, not more drilling, is the future for American jobs and security.