Democrats cave on oil, but energy issues remain

Democrats in Congress have given in to a groundswell of public support for ending a 26-year ban on exploring for oil and gas off the U.S. coastline. They realized they didn't have enough votes in the Senate for an alternative to allow drilling only beyond a 50-mile limit. President Bush vowed to veto that bill if it didn't allow more drilling than that, and Senate Democrats didn't have the required 60 votes to veto-proof the legislation.

The moratorium, first put in place by the first President Bush, enjoyed more popularity in that sunny era before $4-per-gallon gasoline. Support for the drilling ban began to evaporate about the time crude supplies began to dwindle. As the 2008 election approached, Republicans used it as an effective political issue.

They were less effective in explaining how soon drilling could reduce the price of gasoline, and for good reason. It probably won't, but the appearance of doing something was a strong magnet for voters.

So the House and Senate are letting expire a national moratorium on coastal drilling for energy, first imposed when a bipartisan coalition concluded that it was just too risky. The prospect of spills or other accidents in the coastal zone – already suffering because of polluted runoff upstream – was regarded as an unacceptable threat to tourism and the environment.

For environmentalists, failure of the House bill approved a week earlier is no great loss. It had no provision for sharing royalties with the states who would be most at risk in an unforeseen accident. And while states would have had a veto over whether drilling could occur, the bill did not give governors enough authority over oil production. Gov. Mike Easley said states ought to own the rights to offshore oil supplies, not the oil companies.

None of that matters now. The U.S. Interior Department will be able to grant leases to energy explorers. As a practical matter, that won't happen for years. And it would be more years yet before any new oil discoveries would put fuel into the pipelines and finally into fuel tanks.

So there's plenty of time in the new Congress that will take its seat in 2009 to craft a comprehensive policy that focuses on developing new sources and takes better advantage of the opportunity to conserve existing energy supplies. Congress must make sure that part of the discussion is how to empower the states to be major partners in deciding where and how energy is explored off their coasts – and that fairly compensates the states for any oil or gas to be produced.