WASHINGTON – It's still "drill, baby, drill." After the nation's largest offshore oil spill and a series of pipeline breaks, Republican presidential candidates are pushing an aggressive policy of oil and gas drilling that echoes the party's rallying cry from four years ago.
This time around, the calls for more drilling are sometimes running into another conservative ideal — preserving wild places for future generations. The millions of gallons of oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico last year and the crude that flowed from pipelines into Montana's Yellowstone River and Michigan's Kalamazoo River have put a spotlight on the environmental risks of energy production.
But with jobs and the economy in the forefront, nearly every GOP White House contender has a plan to harness the nation's resources as a way to create employment by getting rid of environmental rules and opening up vast areas to drilling.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry says we are sitting "on a treasure trove of energy in this country." Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has said "we're an energy-rich nation that's acting like an energy-poor nation." And since former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 2008 published his book "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less," he has touted more drilling in Alaska and the West to create jobs and drive down gasoline prices.
Some of the ideas sound like they're inherited directly from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee who popularized "drill, baby drill."
At the party's national convention that year, Palin told the crowd, "We need American energy resources, brought to you by American ingenuity and produced by American workers."
Perry, announcing his jobs plan at a steel mill in Pittsburgh this month said, "The quickest way to give our economy a shot in the arm is to deploy American ingenuity to tap American energy."
For some, no place is off limits.
Romney thinks the country can drill safely off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann says she would consider drilling in the Florida Everglades, if it could be done responsibly. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who also wants to open up the Arctic refuge to drilling, has accused President Barack Obama of putting caribou ahead of "something good for our country and our economy" because he said he won't drill there. And businessman Herman Cain believes the idea that high energy consumption and conservation are at odds is a myth peddled by liberals.
Voters will face a bright-line choice next year on the presidential ballot between the GOP nominee and Obama, who has taken a much more cautious approach to expanding oil and gas production — so cautious that GOP critics accuse him of intentionally locking up resources. His administration did give BP the go-ahead this week to drill a new deepwater well in the Gulf of Mexico, the company's first since its catastrophic spill last year. The administration also has granted other companies deepwater permits in recent months.
Romney has said that the spill provided Obama "political cover" for policies to limit drilling, such as the six-month moratorium on new deepwater exploration put in place after the spill. Perry has called the spill "just an act of God" that could not have been prevented. Investigations by the federal government and the companies involved have blamed a series of faulty decisions for the blowout that killed 11 and sent more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
In an interview in September, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, defended the administration's approach.
"I don't think we should be drilling anywhere and everywhere, and I think those who propose it are wrong," Salazar said. "Drilling for oil in Everglades is not going to resolve the energy challenges we face as a country. What we need to do is to have a broad energy portfolio ... that does include oil and gas, but it has to be done in the right places and it has to be done with the right kind of review and the right kind of regulatory oversight."
Even within the GOP, not everyone shares the view of the primary contenders.
After Bachmann's comment on the Everglades, for example, Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., sent her a letter arguing that "the Everglades represents one of the most cherished treasures of the United States, and should be off limits for exploration of any kind of natural energy resource."
Conservation-minded Republicans have invoked President Ronald Reagan and the late conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater in arguing for the protection of natural resources.
"It's like the value of having a little extra oil trumps every other value that Americans have had throughout our history," said David Jenkins of Republicans for Environmental Protection, who told a House panel in September that it was disingenuous to claim that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — originally set aside by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower — could be done with minimal impact.
William K. Reilly, the top environmental official under President George H.W. Bush, and a member of Obama's commission on the Gulf oil spill, has warned about the risks of a spill in waters off Alaska.
Public support for drilling dropped after the Gulf oil spill, but the change was temporary. In February 2010, two months before the spill, a Pew Research Center poll found 63 percent of adults favored more offshore drilling in U.S. waters, with 31 percent opposed. Support for offshore drilling dropped as low as 44 percent by June, after the spill. But by March of this year, it had rebounded to 57 percent in favor and 37 percent opposed.
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