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Drill Me A River

Two stories out today appear to be pretty bad news for those interested in reducing public demand for dirty energy. Californians (!), by a slim majority, now favor offshore drilling. The Public Policy Institute's new findings, from the LA Times:

The poll shows the partisan breakdown in the gusher of new support for offshore drilling. A total of 77% of Republicans favor more drilling, up from 60% in 2007. For independents, it's 44%, compared with 33% a year before. Most Democrats remained opposed. A mere 35% would bless more drilling, compared with 29% a year ago.

All this despite the opposition of their governor and senators, and in light of the factual reality that Americans cannot drill and burn their way out of an energy crisis. Even the US Energy Department has said that the effects of new drilling in the US will take a decade to be realized, will not cause prices to abate in the near term, and are unlikely to lower costs significantly in the long term.

So why has the Californian public flipped? Why are congressional Democrats behaving as though backed into a corner? And why are conservatives yipping with glee? The San Francisco Chronicle gets to the heart of the matter with this succinct graf in its briefing, which begins and ends: "Some suggested that respondents would have answered differently if they had more information." Damn skippy. Barbara Boxer lays out the misleading nature of the polling thusly:

The appropriate question is if you knew you could get more energy from efficiency and clean technologies such as solar, wind and geothermal, would you rather do that or drill along our pristine coast and risk harming a multibillion-dollar tourism, fishing and recreation economy.

Aah, reason. Or at least intellectual comparison shopping. Somewhat bolstering its earlier point, the Chronicle then floats evidence showing Californian support for offshore drilling ebbs and flows with the price of gasoline. A 2003 University of California Energy Institute paper details how public enthusiasm lagged after the 1969 Unocal oil spill, picked up again in the early 80s when gas prices spiked, receded in the late 80s and 90s and aughts, and has grown again today--suggesting that support for drilling may be broad, but it's rather shallow.

More irksome politically, support is subject to all kinds of rhetorical predations and straw-man scenarios, many of which have been utilized by Republican flacks plumping for oil and gas companies. This insincerity recalls a recent post by the GOP's go-to green, Jim Manzi, titled "Why We're Going to Win On Global Warming." Despite his concession that cap and trade is on the way, he counsels Republicans to keep hammering home the catastrophic impact of such legislation on the US economy:

How do we keep pushing this to the most positive possible outcome, given the overall correlation of political forces? Simple, keep coming back to the same question: “What do we pay, and what do we get?"

Given that offshore oil exploration could cost billions up front, without any tangible benefits, Manzi et al would do well to ask themselves--and the country--the same question.

--Dayo Olopade