Last week, Sen. John McCain reversed his longstanding opposition to offshore drilling. The Arizona Senator and his campaign surrogates framed the move as a much-needed effort to combat energy costs in the wake of record high gas prices - political action to Sen. Barack Obama's inaction.
"Floridians are suffering, and when you're paying over $4 a gallon for gas, you have to wonder whether there might be additional resources that we might be able to utilize to bring that price down," said Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who also changed his stance on the policy.
But is there one credible economist or energy analyst who actually believes that offshore drilling could have a short-term impact on the market dynamics?
The Huffington Post took on the task of finding an expert who thought that Americans would, within the next decade, receive relief at the pump from McCain's plan. Querying the entire scope of the ideological spectrum -- and putting aside the debate over whether or not offshore drilling was sensible policy -- the consensus seemed to be that if the presumptive GOP nominee was persuading voters that he could help decrease their gas bill, he was either living in a political fantasy or being disingenuous.
We started out with the conservative crowd, the one seemingly most predisposed to the idea of drilling.
"There is no question it would take quiet a bit of time for this to come to the market," said Max Schulz, an energy analyst for the Manhattan Institute. "But it was the same argument that was used any time over the past ten years, that it would take too much time for this stuff to have an effect... Having a couple million extra barrels on the world market would eventually help ease those markets."
Other expressed similar, qualified skepticism about the short-term benefits of McCain's plan.
"Would starting to drill now do anything for consumers in the near future?" asked Ken Green, an energy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. "The answer to this one, again in my opinion, is probably not, since it'll take so long for new oil or gas to come to market. There is some small chance it would have immediate benefits if the current price of oil is fueled by spectators convinced that supply will continue to remain stagnant in the face of growth. They could take a commitment to drill as evidence that supply constraints will loosen, resulting in lower prices (or slower increases), making oil futures a weaker investment that would trade for less."
Added Jerry Taylor, a fellow at the Cato Institute, "I think it would have an effect, just not a major effect. The odds are you couldn't get any significant amounts of crude from coastal areas within the next decade. Offshore rigs, if you want to go get one, tough luck. They are all leased out. Even if the infrastructure is there, it would be hard, but the infrastructure isn't there... But markets react to future developments and even if the crude is not flowing, the project itself could have an impact on markets."
But the assertion that offshore drilling could have an impact on oil prices by placating oil speculators is itself a contested proposition. And some analysts insist that it is wishful thinking that the market would suddenly perk up because of the prospect of more supply.
"There are a number of problems with that argument," said Rob Shapiro, formerly undersecretary of commerce under President Clinton, and co-founder and chairman of Sonecon, LLC. "First of all I don't think anyone thinks that within the time period of futures trading, that there would be enough additional supply to affect global future prices. Second of all, the market will look at this not only in terms of, 'there is more supply,' but also, 'there is more supply at substantial greater costs to recover than current supply, and with substantial new liabilities' -- the communities that are going to sue them when they destroy their beaches."
Indeed, as Taylor pointed out and as a number of independent studies have emphasized, there are a host of loopholes, costs, delays and uncertainties that make offshore drilling far from a sure oil market boom. There is a five-year waiting period just to lease land for drilling, and even more time on top of that to get a contract for the oil rigs. The American Petroleum Institute recently acknowledged that there is a dearth of equipment to drill on the land and coasts that are already accessible. And depending on the size of the station being built, and the possibility that oil may not be found immediately, it could be upwards of ten years before crude is even brought to the surface.
The Energy Information Administration estimated that oil from these sites would hit the market around 2017 and peak around 2027. Rushing the process would likely only result in less supply. "The faster we try to drain the less efficient the drainage," said Dr. Ralph Byrns, Professor of Economics at UNC-Chapel Hill. "If we drain it dry and still get 14 billion barrels of oil [the President has suggested 18 billion], that itself would still take 20 years."
Which brings us to the other side of the ideological spectrum, where analysts and experts not only see offshore drilling as a relatively fruitless enterprise, but precisely the wrong type of solution to achieve energy independence.
"Oil companies make more money on oil they own as long as the price stays high," said Marc Cooper, Director of Research for the Consumer Federation of America. "So the primary effect of drilling offshore will be increasing the profit of the oil companies. Today when they make a deal to drill in Saudi Arabia, they deal with the local government who takes all the rent. When they own their own oil, when they go to the outer-continental shelf, they don't have to pay OPEC."
A Democratic analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, had a more nefarious explanation for McCain and President Bush's support for the offshore exploration: "If you wanted to go into Iraq, you saw 9/11 as a way to do that. And if you want to do offshore drilling, you see $4.00 a gallon gas as a way to do that."
To be fair, McCain and his aides have publicly stated that in this battle, as well during his press for a temporary gas tax holiday, the Senator was not casting his lot with the economists. And in a moment of sincerity, a senior adviser to the Arizona Republican,
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, acknowledged that new offshore drilling wouldn't have an immediate effect on gas prices. In fact, three weeks before he came out in support of drilling, the Senator himself acknowledged that offshore resources "would take years to develop."
And yet McCain has been arguing that he is taking proactive steps to relieve the burden consumers are feeling at the pump, even declaring that offshore drilling "would be very helpful in the short term in resolving our energy crisis." It is, some say, the antithesis of straight-talk politics.
"Obviously McCain's people know this is kind of a joke," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "But they have the media frame that they want. They have Obama sitting there whining about the environment and he is there doing something about five-dollar gas, when in essence there is nothing his plan does for short term relief."
Bolu Adeyeye was a contributing reporter to this story.
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