Public support for tapping America’s oil reserves has been strong over the past several years, but it received its toughest test with the Deepwater Horizon spill. The verdict is now in – and it’s drill, baby, drill!
A clear majority continued to support drilling in American waters even during the height of the spill, when oil was gushing uncontrollably and dying birds headlined network newscasts. Pollsters at Rasmussen report that, “since the oil rig explosion that caused the massive oil leak, support for offshore drilling has ranged from 56 percent to 64 percent.”
That’s not far below the 72 percent who supported it before the spill, nor much different than the support back in the summer of 2008 when pump prices topped $4 a gallon. Now that the leak has been stopped, the percentage in favor should start rising again.
Support was always strongest in Louisiana—which bore the brunt of the environmental and economic damage—where 79 percent of residents remained in favor of drilling, the same as before the spill.
And it is with Louisianans and other Gulf Coast residents with whom President Obama overplayed his hand. His administration tried to parlay the spill into a justification for a moratorium on offshore drilling, as well as other energy price-hiking and job-killing measures like the Senate’s cap-and-trade bill. The Bayou backlash against the moratorium—including from Louisiana Democrats in Congress—was deafening.
Looking forward, the biggest threat to the Gulf region’s economy is not the spill itself, but Washington’s reaction to it. According to a study by Louisiana State University economics professor Joseph Mason, the moratorium may destroy 12,000 jobs in the near term, and 36,000 if it lasts a year. And while Gulf region loses the jobs, and the rest of the nation eventually loses the energy that would have been produced.
And it turns out that the public was wise to remain pro-drilling. Despite the best efforts of President Obama to hype the spill, including a prime-time speech calling it “the worst environmental disaster American has ever faced,” the damage has proven to be far from catastrophic. The scariest claims turned out to be nonsense—remember those “experts” predicting that the oil would make its way around Florida and blacken the Atlantic coast?
It appears that much of the oil has been broken down by microbes before it could do damage. As cleanup activities and efforts to compensate those who have been harmed move forward, there is reason for cautious optimism about the long-term prospects for recovery in the Gulf. Even the Gulf seafood industry is making a quick comeback. To the extent they do have problems it is not with actual contamination of Gulf shrimp and other seafood, but the mere perception amongst buyers that a spill big enough to dominate the news for months must have caused more harm than it did.
The administration is still pushing the moratorium, but its gloomy rhetoric—echoed by nearly every anti-fossil fuel environmental group—may undercut its efforts. If the Deepwater Horizon spill really was the absolute worst that could happen, then the benefits of producing American oil sure seem worth the risks. Keep in mind, spills of this magnitude have occurred rarely – the Exxon Valdez tanker spill was in 1989 and the last major offshore well blowout in American waters occurred off Santa Barbara in 1969. We will most likely see a return of gas at $4 a gallon—or higher—long before we see another spill this big.
Washington can and should find out what caused the spill and impose reasonable safeguards, but it should not close the door on tapping the nation’s oil resources. The American people have had it right all along—drill, baby, drill.
Ben Lieberman is an Associate Fellow In Environmental Policy with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in Washington DC.