Thursday, September 14, 2006

Energy and Politics: Entrenching Positions

By Bart Mongoven
Strategic Forecasting, Inc.

Chevron Corp. on Sept. 5 confirmed test-well results that showed an oil deposit in the Gulf of Mexico could contain as much as 15 billion barrels of oil. If the estimate is accurate, the deposit -- from which production could begin by 2010 at the earliest, becoming fully operational by 2013 -- would increase U.S. proven reserves by 50 percent. The announcement was front-page news in many U.S. publications, but rather surprisingly, dropped out of the headlines as quickly as it entered.

Most U.S. politicians have ignored the announcement, and those who have been called upon to make statements have stuck to the established party talking points. Republicans say the Chevron discovery shows that a combination of conservation and domestic investment in exploration can bring relief from the high oil prices that long-term investments in renewable sources cannot. Democratic politicians say the find is not large enough to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and that Chevron's discovery can be only a distraction from the important work of reducing oil consumption and finding new sources of energy.

Essentially, both parties subscribe to the idea that it is important for the United States to move away from foreign oil. The major difference is that Republicans tend to emphasize the word "foreign," while Democrats emphasize "oil."

That a discovery of such apparent significance as Chevron's has not changed the political debate an iota suggests that positions on U.S. energy policy have hardened. Not only does this mean that as far as energy is concerned, the political dice have been cast for the coming election; more importantly, it means that politicians no longer are paying attention to the actual energy situation. U.S. energy politics and the reality of the United States' energy situation now exist independently.

Entrenched Positions

Politically, Democrats appear to hold the offensive on energy-related issues, and the GOP has decided to merely react and deflect Democratic Party appeals. In other words, it will be the Democrats' strategy that is key in understanding the political debates to come.

Their long-term strategy, of course, appears to place energy at a center point that ties together national security, economics, labor and the environment. But this strategy is geared toward the 2008 presidential election, and will do little to support the Democrats' congressional candidates in November. Thus, for the near term, the Democrats will appeal to the public primarily through populist rhetoric about oil companies and high gasoline prices, without capitalizing on the full scope of the larger strategy this year.

Republicans, for their part, have ceded the critical ground that moving away from oil is necessary where possible, even though they support exploration and development of new oil finds in the United States. The crucial shift was evident in the State of the Union message, when President George W. Bush said the country was "addicted to oil." He reframed this message slightly last week, saying, "Dependence on foreign oil jeopardizes our capacity to grow."
On another front, the GOP has shifted away from mocking conservationists to encouraging the development of hybrid-fuel vehicles, ethanol and other alternatives to fossil fuels. Having ceded the question of whether change is necessary, Republicans are now positioned to argue that their policy is one of moderation, painting their opponents as energy extremists.

With Republicans and Democrats in agreement that the United States must move away from oil, the question has become one of how quickly the country will make this move and how it can be done. The GOP has not left itself much maneuvering room; thus, the party cannot reverse course upon news that the country may have 50 percent more proven oil reserves than it did a month ago.

The Near Term

Energy will figure prominently in economic rhetoric and in policy debates from now until November. The policy debates will focus primarily on supply-side issues, such as what limits the federal government should place on oil exploration activities. Other issues before the Congress -- including bills on climate change and conservation -- will not receive attention before Congress breaks. The public discussions will be dominated by questions about gasoline prices and oil companies.

The rhetorical battle could be the most politically important. Voters are telling polling firms that the high price of gasoline affects their perception of how the economy is faring, how well the president is doing his job and how well they are doing personally. For both parties, the strategic takeaway is clear. Democrats need to pin the blame for high gasoline prices on the Republicans, talking about lackadaisical oversight of price-gouging oil companies, government mismanagement and the war in Iraq. And Republicans must try to convince the public that the high price of gasoline is a symptom of the larger complexities of the tense global situation. While the high prices generally will hurt the GOP, the fact that gasoline prices currently are falling could mute some of the power of the Democrats' argument come November.

A series of issues before Congress will provide additional fuel for energy debates in the coming months. The most contentious of these will be a Senate vote on whether to lift a national moratorium on new offshore drilling. The Senate is unlikely to follow the House of Representatives, which voted to lift the moratorium nationally, and likely will vote instead on whether to allow increased drilling in the Gulf of Mexico -- already a site of significant activity and the location of the Chevron find announced this week. Chevron's announcement will greatly assist those in the Senate who are trying to press this bill forward, as it suggests (true or otherwise) that offshore deposits, particularly in the Gulf, offer greater oil independence -- or at least reduced dependence on foreign oil.

In addition to this, the Senate will call hearings on BP's operations in Prudhoe Bay. Environmentalists and some Democrats will attempt to use these hearings to paint the oil industry as reckless and to portray corporate operations as inherently dangerous to the environment. There will be considerable political grandstanding, but the Prudhoe Bay hearings likely will lead to significant challenges for those who trying to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for exploration.

The Longer Term

Once the midterm election has passed, the energy debate will become a strategic battle over the role of oil in the U.S. economy. It is in this debate that the Chevron find conceivably could be very important, as it suggests that the United States is not without additional oil resources and the ability to exploit them. However, the immediate reactions to this week's news suggest that the established political positions are unlikely to change, despite the course of events in the oil industry itself.

Between November 2006 and November 2008, energy will play a central role in a variety of political debates.

The most prominent of these will be the climate change debate, which we can expect to be at least partly resolved before the next presidential election. Regardless of whether it is Democrats or Republicans who hold the majority in the 110th Congress, the United States will have a climate change policy before 2009. As increasing numbers of observers are pointing out, the number of states taking action on climate change is raising the pressure for the federal government to harmonize national laws. For instance, California -- which often leads national policy on air-quality issues -- has passed a bill (signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept. 4) that limits greenhouse gas emissions. The California bill has begun a process that will force federal action.

Apart from climate change, however, energy issues will be used primarily in the next two years as opportunities for political posturing and for the parties to differentiate themselves and their policies. Politicians will debate various energy problems and solutions. The purpose of these debates, regardless of which party controls Congress, will not be to resolve the issues, but rather to build constituencies and score political points. Here again, Democrats have the political initiative.

Energy will be drawn into national security discussions particularly often, as it provides Democrats with the rare opportunity of differentiating their stance on a foreign policy issue from that of the GOP without being merely against whatever the president is doing. By arguing that U.S. national security has been weakened by the country's reliance on foreign (particularly Middle Eastern) oil, Democrats can present themselves as offering a sensible, stronger alternative.

This is an important element of the Democratic Party's larger strategic calculus. In addition to distinguishing its policies from that of the GOP, having an energy plank in its foreign policy platform will offer particular appeal for conservative labor union members -- who tend to support the Democrats on economic policy but favor Republicans in foreign affairs.

Labor has not yet focused squarely on energy issues, but it is poised to play a strong role in energy debates in the run-up to the 2008 election. The U.S. Steelworkers and the United Autoworkers have been particularly keen to take a stand on energy policy and climate change in recent years. Both approach the issue with the view that American manufacturing has been harmed by the country's current energy policies, and that a number of new policies -- from automotive fuel efficiency to increased usage of renewable energy -- can reduce manufacturing job losses in the United States.

The Republicans have not yet tipped their hand as to how they plan to respond to the strategic challenge Democrats are building with the energy issue. The party will have to deliver something more than merely an oppositionist response; the Democrats tried that strategy for 10 years to very little effect. In the past, Bush has been able to regain tactical initiative by making significant overtures toward the middle -- catching Democrats off-guard and over-extended -- as he did with the "addicted to oil" State of the Union message in January. The most obvious place for the president to make a new push is on automotive fuel economy, where change is very likely regardless.

But tactical maneuvering will not solve the strategic challenge the GOP faces. Whether a strategic response is in the offing is not yet clear, but the dearth of political attention thus far given to the recent oil find in the Gulf suggests that a new political approach is not imminent.

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