Congressional Leadership Blocks Energy Production

Published October 9, 2008

Facing heightened demands from Republicans and a growing number of Democrats to boost domestic production of oil and natural gas, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) nevertheless adjourned Congress for the summer without permitting a vote on the issue.

With Congress scheduled to adjourn for the year September 30 and a host of other issues to be dealt with before the November election, there is scant time to overcome the impasse on energy.

Number One Issue

Responding to public anger over the rising costs of fuel and electricity, GOP lawmakers have urged a vote on lifting a congressional moratorium on drilling for oil and natural gas on the outer continental shelf (OCS), removing a moratorium on developing vast deposits of oil shale in the West, and allowing for energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

On July 14, President George W. Bush announced he was rescinding a 1990 executive order that forbade oil exploration and development on the OCS.

“The high price of gas is the number one issue facing Americans at the moment, and it should be the number one issue for the Senate,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in a July 7 press release. “Americans are hurting, and they have every right to expect their elected representatives to do something.”

Avoiding a Vote

Democratic leaders, fearful that much of their party’s rank and file will join GOP lawmakers in supporting more domestic energy production, are doing their best to downplay the issue.

Instead of allowing a vote on domestic energy production, they have countered by proposing legislation to clamp down on “speculators” in the energy futures markets, and by demanding oil companies make full use of the 68 million acres of federal land on which they have purchased leases from the government.

Appearing on ABC’s This Week discussion program on August 3, Pelosi was adamant that she would not allow a standalone vote on oil and gas drilling offshore or in Alaska. “This is a decoy, not a solution,” she said. “I’m not giving the gavel away to a tactic … that supports Big Oil at the expense of American consumers.”

Political Stakes Rise

Frustrated by Pelosi’s refusal to allow an up-or-down vote on energy production, many members of Congress refused to return home after Pelosi adjourned the House of Representatives.

Gathering in a dark Capitol building after Pelosi ordered the lights and power turned off, dozens of members of Congress gave speeches in favor of increased energy production in late July and early August to an ever-growing number of citizens watching from the gallery.

With Pelosi refusing to allow C-SPAN to film the post-adjournment speeches, the speakers brought in their own camcorders to film the events.

As both sides jockey for position, threats and counter-threats have taken center stage. Some Republicans are even threatening to vote against a resolution to fund the federal government for the 2009 fiscal year (which begins October 1) unless Democrats agree to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling. If the budget resolution fails, many departments and agencies will be denied funds to operate and be forced to close.

Dems in Driver’s Seat

With polls showing Democrats poised to gain seats in both houses of Congress, the Democratic leadership is in no mood to make concessions. But the consequences of such a decision may be severe, public opinion polls suggest.

According to a June Gallup poll, 57 percent of Americans support oil and gas production in “coastal and wilderness areas currently off limits.” Still more strikingly, a late-June CNN/Opinion Research poll showed 73 percent of Americans favor expansion of offshore drilling for oil and natural gas.

Political analysts are crediting a significant late-summer gain in opinion polls for presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to his calls for the government to be more supportive of oil and natural gas production.

No Price Relief in Sight

While the political battles rage, high energy prices show no sign of going away on a long-term basis.

Despite the recent drop in oil and natural gas prices, energy costs continue to eat into the disposable incomes of consumers, a situation that could worsen as winter approaches. Natural gas, always subject to wild fluctuations, costs 11 percent more now than it did a year ago, and the price of home heating oil, used widely in the Northeast, is up 36 percent.

“Cut and run isn’t just a foreign policy anymore for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Apparently, it’s our energy policy as well,” said Greg Blankenship, president of the Illinois Policy Institute.

Blankenship says Pelosi is avoiding finding a solution. “For a generation, we’ve placed a brick wall between our energy resources and our economy. Until we deal with this like adults—which includes drilling—we will find ourselves at the mercy of these kinds of periodic spikes in energy prices,” said Blankenship.

Bonner R. Cohen ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC. Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.