Obama Caught between Jobs, Environmental Concerns
    2010-06-10 12:39:22     Xinhua      Web Editor: Jiang Aitao
 

by Matthew Rusling

The largest oil spill in U.S. history has put U.S. President Barack Obama in a bind.

On one side are those calling for an end to offshore drilling, such as environmental groups and concerned citizens. On the other side are Gulf Coast residents, politicians and the oil industry, who say Obama's six-month extension of the moratorium on coastal drilling is costing jobs in this worst recession since the 1930s.

In April, Obama called for new offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean from Delaware to central Florida, as well as in the northern waters of Alaska. But last week the president extended for six months a moratorium on new leases for deepwater drilling off U.S. coasts.

"There's no doubt in my mind that there's an awful lot of pressure to prevent offshore drilling," said Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute think tank. "On the other hand the United States does need oil. So precautions are going to be taken whenever there is a new offshore drilling project. There will be much greater precautions than were taken when BP started to drill in the Gulf."

Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, said Obama is trying to carve out a middle ground that considers both environmental and business interests.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal penned a recent letter to Obama saying the moratorium could cost his state up to 20,000 jobs over the next 12 to 18 months.

But some dispute such claims.

Dean Baker, co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said drilling is likely to add only a marginal number of jobs, in spite of what he called the oil industry's touting of coastal drilling's economic benefits. "You could make other arguments in favor of drilling, but the jobs involved are really trivial," he said.

Ben Lieberman, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank, said Obama was never really in favor of drilling in the first place.

"The president's pro-offshore platform was never all that substantive, but it did put him in a box because at least rhetorically he was in favor of offshore drilling within weeks of the spill," he said.

"But if you look at the details of what he was proposing, all it did was allow a few areas to move forward (with offshore drilling)."

The Obama administration on Tuesday announced new regulations for offshore drilling, but industry leaders said the administration has still not handed out any new permits.

"New permits for offshore oil drilling is dead until we resolve the BP crisis," said Darrell West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution think tank. "No one wants to drill unless we can be sure there will be safe results."

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last month grabbed headlines when he backed out of supporting a plan to permit new offshore drilling in a controversial move applauded by environmentalists but blasted by opponents who cited the state's need for employment.

The full extent of the spill's damage remains to be seen, although experts said it could be severe, harming not only beaches but ecosystems, marshes and wildlife as well.

"The extent of oil out there is enormous. As far as you can see to the horizon both to the west and to the east," said Rick Steiner, a marine conservation specialist and co-director of environmental NGO "The Coastal Coalition," after an observation flight on Friday over the spill site. "These guys are going to be dealing with this for months to come."

In a speech on Wednesday in Pittsburg, Obama said offshore drilling was a temporary solution to the nation's energy woes, a statement some analysts said could indicate a backing off from his previous support for offshore drilling.

"I think he's got to be pretty embarrassed about that," said Baker of the president's earlier push to expand coastal drilling.

Polls indicate that Americans are divided on increased drilling, with 50 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed, according to a recent Gallup survey.

Most stop short of favoring an outright ban, as 19 percent said they are against all drilling in U.S. coastal areas, but public support for increased oil drilling has eroded as the crisis has dragged on, Gallup said in a statement.

"President Obama's decision to enact the six-month moratorium is now more in line with Americans' -- and particularly Democrats' -- current views on drilling after the oil spill than before it, when Obama called for more drilling," Gallup' s statement said.

Meanwhile, BP announced on Wednesday that its CEO's predictions that the gush would slow to a "trickle" by next week would take longer than expected.

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