Americans say “Drill,” Democrats listen

House Democrats passed a new energy bill on Sept. 17, created in response to the public outcry over high gas prices and U.S. dependence on foreign oil. According to a June Rasmussen poll, 67 percent of Americans believe that drilling off the coasts of California, Florida and other states will lower gas prices. Drilling as a means of solving the energy crisis has been a divisive issue for many Americans. Congressional Democrats have historically opposed offshore drilling. However, pressure from their constituency has caused many moderate Democrats in Republican and swing districts to change their stance in order to avoid criticism that they are energy obstructionists.

According to The Hill, in her speech on the floor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said the change came as a result of President Bush’s decision to lift the 1982 moratorium on drilling in the outer continental shelf, which would allow oil companies to drill three miles offshore. Pelosi characterized the legislation as an attempt to protect the shoreline.

Senior Dan Jimenez, who spent last summer working for Rep. Chris Murphy (D-CN), said that the congressman changed his original stance on drilling in order to appease voters in his conservative district.

“My congressman’s original stance was to support the ‘use it or lose it bill’ forcing oil companies to use government land they already had,” said Jimenez. “But he changed his policy from no drilling to drilling based on what he was experiencing from his field organizers hearing ‘drill drill.’ Whereas the 2006 election was about the war, this election is about energy.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Pelosi hailed the 236-189 vote a victory because, in addition to drilling, the bill included Democratic priorities including banning drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), closing corporate loopholes to crack down on improper oil speculation, and requiring holders of government oil leasers to use them or lose them.

“The people who were against drilling who shifted their views had only two choices,” said Maria Rosales, assistant professor of political science. “One was to educate voters and the second was to compromise and get more resources towards alternative fuels. Democrats chose the second and I think it was the right choice.”

The 290-page energy bill put nearly all House Democrats on record supporting some offshore drilling. The bill permits states to decide whether or not they want to drill between 50 and 100 miles off their coasts, while allowing the federal government to open areas beyond this threshold. By keeping the ban on drilling close to the shore, Democrats are able to continue protecting the environment.

According to the Associated Press, Republicans opposing the bill cite data from the Interior Department that estimate 88 percent of the recoverable oil lies within the closed 50-mile zone. Republicans also argue that there is little financial incentive for states to permit drilling off their shores.

“What good is drilling 50 miles offshore? Democrats only voted for this bill so they can go back to their constituents and say, ‘I voted for drilling’,” said Ken Gilmore, associate political science professor. “It’s dumb politics. Most Americans believe that drilling now is at least a necessary evil even if it’ll take five, ten, or seven years.”

While many Americans support drilling, 18 percent of voters believe that drilling will not solve the problem of high oil prices. They think Congress should concentrate its efforts on developing clean energy policies instead.

“Renewable energy legislation needs to get passed uncompromisingly,” said Matt Clausen, president of the College Democrats. “Oil companies are not using the land they have properly, when at the same time they want land off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina.