GREEN BAY, Wis. - President Obama stirred up a political hornet's nest when he opened large areas of the nation's coasts to offshore oil and gas drilling. His plan would permit exploration and drilling along the East Coast from Delaware to Florida, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and on the north coast of Alaska.
The president was careful to exclude the West Coast, Alaska's Bristol Bay and southern Florida. A site off the coast of Virginia is expected to be the first to be explored, and what happens there will be an indicator of what we'll see elsewhere.
Most environmentalist groups were quick to denounce the president's proposal. Republicans predictably said the president didn't go far enough.
Sarah Palin, for example, said the plan was less "drill, baby, drill" and more "stall, baby, stall." She was right in one sense. The offshore drilling plan calls for detailed scientific and environmental studies before the Interior Department grants new leases for drilling, and those leases may be challenged in court.
Still, what are we to make of this unexpected Obama initiative? Will it open a Pandora's box on energy issues? Probably not.
The debate over offshore drilling is more about offering political sound bites than it is about developing energy resources.
The president knew the plan would be greeted with skepticism. He rightly defended it as only one component of a balanced national energy strategy that will increase reliance on clean and sustainable energy sources, and he has sought such a balance. His administration already has invested more money in renewable energy development than any in history.
He also understands no amount of drilling could produce enough oil to significantly reduce the nation's current dependence on imports. The U.S. uses more than 20 percent of the world's oil production, yet it has only about two to three percent of oil reserves.
Trying to achieve energy independence in this way is delusional. The fields off Virginia, for example, contain only an estimated 130 million barrels of oil, or about six days worth at our current level of use.
This is why the U.S. Department of Energy forecasts an increasing dependence on imported oil unless we reduce our consumption.
The only realistic choice for the country is to create alternatives to the use of oil through expanded research on biofuels and other promising technologies and continued advances in energy efficiency and conservation. This is why the president also announced final rules for a big jump in federal fuel economy standards.
When these rules take effect in 2016, a gallon of gas will take us much farther. In fact, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the nation will save ten times more oil with the fuel economy standards than it will gain from expanded offshore drilling.
Electric vehicles that use no oil at all will begin arriving in showrooms later this year.
Cynics say the only reason the president now favors offshore drilling, much like his earlier endorsement of nuclear power, is to gain bipartisan support for energy and climate change legislation before the Senate.
It is true that he needs that support, but the Senate is likely to demand increased offshore drilling anyway as part of a politically acceptable energy package.
So far, however, it looks like few Republicans and moderate Democrats are ready to favor the legislation. That's a shame! They and others need to ask themselves about the economic and national security price this country will pay if we do not begin to take energy needs and climate change seriously.
We need to move beyond these political distractions over drilling offshore for oil and gas and begin to chart a path toward clean and sustainable sources of energy. China and the European Union understand this. We should as well.
Michael Kraft is the Herbert Fisk Johnson Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and the author of Environmental Policy and Politics. Readers may write him at UW-GB, 2420 Nicolet Dr., MAC B310, Green Bay, WI 54311 or e-mail him at kraftmuwgb.edu.