Democrats' Drilling Bill Angers Environmental Purists
All summer long, House Republicans staged weekly news conferences outside the Capitol calling for more offshore oil drilling. And they were usually met by an assortment of environmental protesters chanting in unison, trying to drown out the GOP's pro-drilling voices. Some even wore polar bear costumes to protest Arctic drilling proposals.
But then Democrats approved a bill Tuesday that could lead to drilling just 50 miles off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, reversing the party's long-standing opposition to exploration of the outer continental shelf.
Now the usually united environmentalist front has begun to show some cracks.
Those who supported the Democratic legislation are viewed on and off Capitol Hill as the pragmatic allies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Chief among them is the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded by former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta. Its energy experts have been among the sources of the anti-drilling argument. But when push came to shove this week, CAP sent out an action alert urging a yes vote on the drilling bill.
"The measure would reduce energy costs for families and includes many provisions to speed the transformation to clean renewable energy and efficiency," wrote Winnie Stachelber and Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellows at CAP.
Also falling into that category was the Sierra Club, an elder statesman among environmental groups whose motto is "explore, enjoy and protect the planet." Its top officials argued that ending the total ban on offshore drilling was a fair tradeoff for funding the transition to renewable resources. "The House energy compromise isn't perfect. It does allow expanded drilling, but at the same time, it ends major subsidies to the oil companies," wrote Nathan Manuel, the club's energy expert.
The purists who bemoaned Pelosi's legislation were led by Environment America, formed in 2007 as a collection of groups, including those formerly associated with various state Public Interest Research Groups. Environment America left no doubt where it stands: "Increased offshore oil drilling would threaten our beloved coasts and beaches with chronic pollution and potentially catastrophic spills while doing little to increase our energy supply and nothing to help Americans deal with energy costs."
And once Pelosi added more drilling in the oil shale of the Mountain West to her bill, the National Wildlife Federation joined the call to arms: "Oil shale is a double disaster -- not only for America's western wilderness and water supply, but for our climate."
The Ocean Conservancy simply stayed on the sidelines of what amounted to an intramural conflict. Before the vote, the group issued a statement that was neither an endorsement nor a rejection of the bill.
All this back and forth has environmentalists' typical opponents -- GOP lawmakers -- confused. Last week, Rep Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) said he would not believe that Democrats really supported drilling until there was an uproar among their environmental allies: "If the polar bears start showing up [at Pelosi press events], then maybe this is real."
Coming Up Lame
There's a new wrinkle to those contests that ask Hill insiders to guess the date and time when Congress adjourns for the year. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced yesterday that he will not adjourn the chamber once all legislative action is finished and will keep it open in pro forma sessions.
As Democrats have done all year when Congress goes on recess, a senator will appear every third day to open and shut the chamber in a matter of seconds. That will prevent President Bush from making any recess appointments while Congress is gone, even though the most controversial ones probably would be for only a couple months. And it will allow Senate committees to more easily convene hearings to explore how to react to the ongoing crisis in the financial markets.