March 6, 2011

Permit Baby, Permit!

Late Friday, too late for any major inclusion in the news cycle and likely to be overlooked over the weekend, President Obama's Department of the Interior appealed the court ruling that gave it 30 days to make a decision to approve or deny several deep water drilling permits.  The latest stalling tactic, while not unexpected, is instructive as to the thinking behind the White House decisions.

Back when the Gulf oil spill was flowing, whether it made sense or not, the President had political cover to suspend the issuing of permits.  But that time has clearly passed.  With oil approaching $4 per gallon, with Middle East in turmoil, with green energy still on some mythical distant horizon, energy self-sufficiency is not a problem for 2050, it's a problem for today. With each permit delay, oil companies will start to look elsewhere for opportunities - as they should. 

But the White House feels differently.
The Obama administration late Friday appealed a judge's orders directing the Interior Department to act on several Gulf of Mexico deepwater drilling permits...

Gulf state lawmakers and the oil industry have accused the department of enacting a "de facto" moratorium against new drilling, while Interior says it needs to ensure safety and environmental protections are in place.

Friday's appeal challenges rulings by Judge Martin Feldman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, who on Feb. 17 gave Interior 30 days to make a verdict on five pending deepwater drilling permits applications. He later added two additional permits to that order...

“The judge in this particular case in my view is wrong," Salazar said. “And we will argue the case because I don’t believe that the court has the jurisdiction to basically tell the Department of Interior what my administrative responsibilities are.”

He added, “the policy we have in mind is unmistakingly clear: We are moving forward with the development of oil and gas” production."

Earlier in February, the judge held Interior in contempt, citing "dismissive conduct" by blocking offshore drilling during last year's spill.

Again, the action itself is not surprising - the administration is clearly NOT pro-domestic oil and gas. But the signals the decision sends are clear cut - this decision is politically driven, not agenda driven. 

The administration had three options in this situation.
  1. Approve the permits
  2. Decline the permits
  3. Stall
That the administration chose not to approve the permits is a no-brainer, but it completely disembowels Salazar's comment that they are are moving forward with the development of oil and gas” production."  That statement in and of itself is an attempt to misinform the centrist voters into thinking, for as long as they can maintain, that President Obama is being pragmatic on domestic oil supply. 

They also did not decline the permits - something that would seem obvious to do if you believe the President is anti-oil.  When the oil spill occurred last summer, the President did not pull an "I told you so." on "drill baby drill". If he had, he would have definitely appealed more to the environmentalists within his base, but he didn't.  The same is true for declining these permits. The President wants certain voters to hold onto the idea that he wants the oil but he wants it done safely.  He's hoping that by pushing out the decision indefinitely he gets the rabid environmentalists to stay on board with the tacit understanding that he's stringing the centrists and pro-drill crowd along. This crude attempt at triangulation is not tenable in the long term, but it is certainly political calculus.  If the President were true to his stated intentions he would have complied with the judge's order by declining the permits.  Such a bold statement would cement people's views of him, on both sides of the voting aisle. 

The President, who campaigned as everything to everyone, can't afford to actually take sides on such contentious issues.  That only happens when his personal opinions slip out (as in the case of Wisconsin unions, or half-informed news of police versus African American professors who are personally acquainted with the President).

That brings us to the stall tactic.  Appealing a decision, as late as politically feasible without making it look like a stalling tactic, is the expected outcome.  The President did not disappoint - he's trying to thread the needle hoping that this decision could possibly drag on well into 2012, and hopefully past November.  Should the decision be required before then if they can't extend the case, expect some approval and some decline.  It's about optics, not about reality.

Using Occam's Razor, the simplest explanation is that the President is not ready to make a decision because he wants voters of all stripes to believe he's on their side of this particular issue.  It worked for him in 2008 and he likely believes it is till possible in 2012.  All the President needs to do to win again is to keep African American voters on board in similar numbers and the youth voters as well.  His campaign funding will be directed in get out the vote efforts those demographics and the general advertising will still attempt to portray him as all things to all people.  Will it work?  It might.  The attempt to hold together the centrists by taking positions like this one and obfuscation on budgets and health care might keep enough of the naive voters in the center on board to overcome a repeat of the drubbing (for him personally) that took place in 2010. Hopefully, the President is more ill-informed on that account than he is on what to do with domestic oil supply.


  1. This so called President, when running for office declared he would have no problem with gas being $5 a gallon or more as he felt we were not paying enough and it would be "green" if we used less gas. As his policies are hard core left in nature as well as pro Muslim, it is to be expected he would delay anything that would develop our own resources.

    His words and actions from the moment he came on the national scene always appear to be aimed at the destruction of the U.S. as we know it!

  2. I can't argue your points. I don't think though he wants the U.S. destroyed. He wants it as it exists to be destroyed, but his real aim is to shape it into a progressive's utopia. That's his vision for America, not the U.S. that grew into greatness over two plus centuries.


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