Off an historic win on health care reform, President Barack Obama has decided to use the momentum to push forward his next Big Agenda item: energy and climate change.
Much to the chagrin of environmentalists, progressives and many politicians, he made his move with what's becoming his signature tactic -- a preemptive attempt to neutralize the opposition. The opposition is still the ultra-right GOP, but now the Republicans' corporate sponsors, the oil, gas and energy conglomerates, enter stage right. Their mantra since the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign has been "Drill, baby, drill."
President Obama announced his own plan to drill. This week he made known plans to open up the southern Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Alaska's northern coast to oil and gas exploration and drilling. The announcement met a firestorm of criticism.
"Drilling our coasts will do nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence," Michael Brune of the Sierra Club said in a statement. "It will only jeopardize beaches, marine life, and coastal tourist economies, all so the oil industry can make a short-term profit."
Politicians from states worried about the impact on coastal economies that rely on fishing and tourism also took issue with the president's plan.
"It's fundamentally wrong as an energy policy when we can drive toward renewable energy sources," U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a long time opponent of offshore drilling, said. "I think it's an effort to bring Republicans on board with broader climate change legislation, and I think it's a dangerous plan," he added.
From the other side of the aisle, Republicans also reacted with criticism, some more muted than others. Coming off their bruising defeat over health care, some in the GOP are cautious about being labeled the "Party of No." Yet, Rep. John Boehner summed up the GOP's position best. He said it didn't go far enough, and the biggest gas reserves, which are on the West Coast, should be opened up too.
The president anticipated the criticisms from both sides in his speech. To environmentalists, he emphasized the transition moment the country is in, and stressed that his strategy could move us "from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy."
Worried about an already weak U.S. economy and most important -- jobs -- Obama said, "The only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and long term. To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake."
He also said drilling alone cannot solve the U.S. long-term energy challenges. "[W]ith less than 2 percent of oil reserves, but more than 20 percent of world consumption, drilling alone cannot come close to meeting our long-term energy needs," he said. "[F]or the sake of the planet and our energy independence, we need to begin the transition to cleaner fuels now."
Obama's attempts to thread the political needle infuriate many of the president's progressive allies, who see this as a threat to the ocean eco-systems. "We're appalled that the president is unleashing a wholesale assault on the oceans," said Jacqueline Savitz of Oceana, as reported in The New York Times.
Doug O'Malley, of Environment New Jersey said the group was outraged. "It makes no sense to threaten the east coast of America, including the Jersey Shore, with spills and other drilling disasters when we're about to unleash the real solutions to oil dependence -- cleaner cars, cleaner fuels and clean energy."
The Associated Press reports new drilling could "fill coffers" of cash-strapped states who get a share of the royalties. Exploratory drilling could start as early as this summer, AP reports, but the areas are years away from seeing deep water platforms. The drilling is not expected to bring down high oil prices.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management agreed to stop using a Bush-era provision that fast-tracked oil and gas development on federal lands that conservationists have said could harm a wide variety of lands, including parks, refuges, recreation areas, wetlands, flood plains or other ecological significant or critical areas.