End of the drill ban could be Bush’s legacy
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.