John McCain Wants to Drill in Your Toilet

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Dean Baker
Truthout, June 23, 2008

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That is not true, as far I know, but it makes about as much sense as McCain’s plans to drill off the coast of Florida and in other environmentally sensitive areas. This is McCain’s response to the pain of millions of families hit by $4 a gallon a gas. While the pain is real, the former straight-talker’s plan will not help, and he knows it.

The facts on this one are clear. There is just not that much oil in these restricted offshore areas. Furthermore, we will not see any oil for close to a decade. This means that drilling for oil in these restricted areas will do absolutely nothing for people struggling to pay their bills now, and in fact, it will provide zero relief throughout the next two presidential terms of office.

Furthermore, even when oil from these fields starts hitting the markets and reaches peak production levels, the flow will still be too weak to have a visible impact. The Energy Information Agency (EIA) projects that if we go the drilling route, we could hit peak production of 200,000 barrels a day by 2030.

Perhaps John McCain and his team will sing the praises of the 200,000 barrels of oil per day that his policies will unleash in 22 years, but the reality is that this amount of oil will have too little impact on world oil prices for anyone to notice. The potential production from these environmentally sensitive areas is equal to approximately 0.2 percent of projected world production at that time. As the EIA comments, “any impact on average wellhead price is expected to be insignificant.”

The media have portrayed the disagreement between Senators Obama and McCain as to whether to allow drilling in the currently protected offshore areas as a question of values. Senator Obama values the environment while Senator McCain wants to bring down energy prices and promote economic growth.

However, the facts do not support this distinction. Obama has come down for protecting the environment, but the evidence suggests that McCain’s plan will have no measurable impact on the price of oil or on economic growth. In other words, Senator McCain is willing to jeopardize the environment in these protected areas for nothing.

Perhaps Senator McCain has a geological study that shows the Florida coast has enough oil to be the next Saudi Arabia. However, his campaign has not produced this evidence to date, which means that the EIA analysis provides the only projections that we have on which to assess the merits of drilling in these restricted areas.

Instead of trying to caricature the campaigns to fit their predetermined stereotypes, the media would better serve the public if they simply presented the facts. And the facts as we know them are that one candidate is prepared to maintain a ban on drilling that dates from the first President Bush in order to protect the environment. The other candidate, Senator McCain, is prepared to risk serious environmental damage for almost no measurable benefit in terms of increased energy production or lower energy prices.  

Pitting the environment versus the economy can obviously be a useful frame for a political candidate. No doubt Senator McCain’s focus groups showed that this one scored well or he would not be advocating such a nonsensical position. However, to get away with this position, McCain has to count on the media not bothering to point out that there is no economic issue here, only an environmental one.

There are alternatives to drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive areas that can produce real results. Conservation is the most obvious. Suppose that we increased the average mileage of the fleet of cars in the United States to just 30 MPG in 2030 compared to its current level of around 20 MPG gallon. This would save more than 3.5 million barrels of oil a day, 17 times as much oil as we would get from Senator McCain’s drilling plan.

Suppose we raised average fuel efficiency to 40 MPG by 2030, this would save us more than 5 million barrels of oil per day, 25 times as much as we would get from Senator McCain’s offshore drilling. Since many cars sold today already get more than 40 MPG, this is hardly an unrealistic target. Wherever we set our targets, the simple arithmetic shows that it is far easier to have an impact on oil markets through conservation than drilling in environmentally sensitive areas.

The media have to recognize that reporting the facts is not biased reporting, even if the facts paint a candidate in a very bad light. Risking serious environmental damage for faith-based drilling, is bad policy pure and simple. The media have an obligation to clearly inform the public about what is at stake.


Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer (www.conservativenannystate.org). He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect's web site.