End of the drill ban could be Bush’s legacy

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - PAUL KERPEN

The off­shore oil and gas and Rocky Moun­tain oil shale de­vel­op­ment ban days are num­bered — 35 days and count­ing, to be spe­cific. That’s be­cause the bans ex­pire at the end of this fis­cal year, Sept. 30, and come Oc­to­ber there is noth­ing in cur­rent law that pre­vents green-lighting the leas­ing and ex­plo­ration process. Pres­i­dent Bush has per­sis­tently called on Congress to act on drilling, but the ball is now in his court, not theirs. If he pledges to veto an ex­ten­sion of the ban, op­po­nents of oil drilling will have no other op­tion but to cave in, be­cause veto-sus­tain­ing blocks in both Houses of Congress have made their com­mit­ment to al­low­ing the ban to end, clear in writ­ing.

Just a cou­ple of months ago it was a pipe dream to think that this year would be the year the ban is ac­tu­ally al­lowed to ex­pire. While it’s never been more than just a one year ban, Congress af­ter Congress — Repub­li­can as well as Demo­crat — has seen fit each year to reim­pose it, now 28 years in a row. The Web site in­trade.com started a fu­tures mar­ket on whether the ban will be lifted in June. At the beginning of July the mar­ket put the odds of the ban be­ing lifted this year at less than 10 per­cent — it’s now hov­er­ing around 60 per­cent. This is prob­a­bly be­cause so many for­mer op­po­nents of drilling are now looking for some kind of face-sav­ing com­pro­mise un­der the pres­sure of over­whelm­ing pub­lic sup­port. Victory is in clear sight, but far from cer­tain.

Mr. Bush al­ready took the first step in July when he lifted the ex­ec­u­tive branch mora­to­rium on off­shore oil drilling. That set up the show­down com­ing at the end of Septem­ber over the ex­pir­ing mora­to­rium. And that’s where free-mar­ket he­roes Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Rep. Jeb Hen­sar­ling of Texas come in. They took the lead on strongly worded let­ters that com­mit­ted their sig­na­to­ries to ac­tively op­pose any ef­fort to ex­tend the ban into the new fis­cal year.

The DeMint let­ter now has 39 sign­ers. Three of those sign­ers, how­ever, are also mem­bers of the in­fa­mous Gang of 10 looking to raise taxes some $80 bil­lion, while al­low­ing only a small part of the ban to ex­pire as sched­uled. And two of the most po­lit­i­cally vul­ner­a­ble Se­nate Repub­li­cans, El­iz­a­beth Dole of North Carolina and Gor­don Smith of Ore­gon, have not signed the let­ter, and may — mis­tak­enly — help per­suade Repub­li­can Se­nate lead­er­ship to pur­sue a com­pro­mise rather than a con­fronta­tion that would lead to victory. While Mr. DeMint’s work is great and im­por­tant, he re­mains, for the mo­ment, short of the solid 41 votes he would need for a victory on this in the Se­nate without a pres­i­den­tial veto.

In the House, of course, there is no chance of victory without a veto. Democrats are feel­ing enough po­lit­i­cal heat to seek some kind of cover, but they are still largely be­holden to rad­i­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal groups that are ide­o­log­i­cally op­posed to any new oil and gas pro­duc­tion. With the tight con­trol the ma­jor­ity party en­joys in the House, that means no victory without a veto. With a veto, how­ever, victory on a drilling show­down looks promis­ing. Mr. Hen­sar­ling now has the magic veto-sus­tain­ing num­ber of 146 con­gress­men who have signed his let­ter to com­mit in writ­ing op­po­si­tion to any ex­ten- sion of the bans on off­shore drilling and oil shale de­vel­op­ment into the new fis­cal year. He’ll likely pick up even more sign­ers when Congress comes back into ses­sion, cre­at­ing a rock-solid back-stop against any po­ten­tial Se­nate com­pro­mise. Rock-solid, that is, if and only if Mr. Bush commits to veto any ex­ten­sion of the bans.

Mr. Bush is a lame duck and it would be easy for him to sim­ply sign the ex­ten­sion of the ban, likely to be buried in the year-end spending bill, let every­one go home to cam­paign, and wind down his time in of­fice without any last high-pro­file clash over pol­icy. It would be easy but it would be a mis­take. We need the oil and gas and the lower prices that will come with more pro­duc­tion. Veto-sus­tain­ing coali­tions in both houses of Congress have made clear that if Pres­i­dent Bush takes a strong stand on this is­sue he will win the last­ing legacy of forc­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­trem­ism to yield to eco­nomic ne­ces­sity. That’s a legacy worth the ef­fort.

Phil Kerpen is di­rec­tor of pol­icy for Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity.

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