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To Drill, or Not to Drill

Will McCain change his mind about Alaskan oil?

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Pontiac, Michigan

Republican presidential candidate John McCain says that he's taking another look at the possibility of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and as part of that assessment McCain says that he plans to talk to the nation's most prominent advocate of drilling in ANWR, Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

McCain has opposed drilling in ANWR. In the past he's compared it to drilling in the Grand Canyon. But as energy prices climbed over the past several months, he has been careful to avoid locking himself into an anti-drilling position. In late June, McCain told voters in Missouri and Minnesota that he was open to receiving new information about exploration on Alaska's coastal plain, but noted: "I certainly haven't changed my position."

In an interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD aboard his campaign plane last week, McCain made clear he has not ruled out a change in his position--to one that endorses drilling in ANWR. "I continue to examine it," he said. So does his staff. McCain's campaign has been quietly studying the ANWR issue and discussing the potential consequences--good and bad--of a policy change.

But in our conversation on August 13, McCain added a new wrinkle. When I asked him if he had consulted Palin about ANWR, he said that he had not yet done so. He added, "I probably should," he said. "I will."

So I called Palin to ask what McCain can expect to hear. The answer is that Palin, who has been mentioned as a possible McCain running mate but has not been vetted, will make a straightforward case for drilling in ANWR. She says McCain's willingness to take another look at ANWR is "very encouraging."

"It bodes well for him as a pragmatic and wise and experienced statesman," says Palin. "What he's doing here is he's calling an audible when conditions on the field are changing. And that's what you do if you want to win the game here. One of the pieces of a solution is allowing exploration on that little 2,000 acre plot of land out of the 20 million acres up there in the coastal plain."

The 2,000 acres that Palin refers to is the area that a drilling site would require--"smaller than the size of LAX," as she puts it. "With new technology and directional drilling and other measures that can be taken today to minimize even that footprint. We know that this can be done safely and this can be managed well."

She added: "And I know up here in Alaska, most every Alaskan believes that ANWR should be drilled, and no one cares more about Alaska's environment--our lands, our wildlife, our fresh air, our clean water--than Alaskans themselves. And we know that this can be allowed safely, cleanly, ethically--this type of exploration and development of an American supply of energy."

That last point could be significant. When McCain changed his position on offshore drilling earlier this summer, he did so on federalist grounds. If states believe that drilling can be safely done off their shores, and choose to allow it, he argued, the federal government should no longer stand in their way. He could make the same argument on ANWR.

Still, in our interview, McCain noted that Americans are "far more ambivalent" about drilling in a national wildlife refuge than they are about offshore oil exploration. He's right. Polling on offshore drilling consistently shows supporters outnumber opponents by at least two-to-one.

But if Americans are more ambivalent about drilling in ANWR, a strong majority still supports doing so. A Zogby poll taken in late June found that 59 percent of likely voters favor drilling in ANWR--a result that included support from 57 percent of independents and even 40 percent of Democrats. A Pew Research poll taken at the same time put support for drilling in ANWR at 50 percent (with 43 percent opposed), and a FoxNews/Opinion Dynamics poll found that 53 percent supported drilling. More recently, 55 percent of respondents in an ABC News/Planet Green/Stanford University poll said the U.S. government should "allow drilling for oil in U.S. wilderness areas where it's currently not allowed" (with 43 percent opposed).

Palin, who caused a stir earlier this month by praising Barack Obama's proposal to tap Alaska's natural gas potential, believes McCain could chip away at that opposition by educating voters. "It's been grossly misunderstood on many fronts. When you see the pictures, the visuals used in the opponents' message--and usually this is extreme environmentalists--their message as to why ANWR shouldn't be touched, you see pictures of mountains and rivers and beautiful green valleys. That's not ANWR. ANWR is a flat, barren plain that is very, very rich in resources."

Democrats seem to understand that most Americans don't share their views on domestic drilling. Last week, under pressure from Democratic colleagues tired of being hammered by Republicans as obstructionists, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi backed down from her months-long opposition to allowing a House vote on measures to expand offshore drilling.

Pelosi's climb down followed Barack Obama's attempt to refine his position earlier this month with this convoluted, four-qualifier statement. "My interest is in making sure we've got the kind of comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices," he said. "If, in order to get that passed, we have to compromise in terms of a careful, well thought-out drilling strategy that was carefully circumscribed to avoid significant environmental damage--I don't want to be so rigid that we can't get something done."

For months, McCain had worked hard to portray Obama as "Dr. No" on energy. With his statement, Obama became Dr. Maybe-Under-the-Right-Circumstances. It was a subtle shift, but Obama could plausibly claim that he was open to offshore drilling and that his position was not much different from his opponent's. McCain advisers are eager to restore a sharp contrast on energy and say they're skeptical Obama will ever voice support, however qualified, for drilling in ANWR.

Last Friday, McCain had breakfast in Aspen, Colorado, with Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, who has taken out television ads to promote his efforts to end American dependence on foreign oil. After the breakfast, Pickens told reporters that he had pushed McCain to drill in ANWR. McCain, Pickens continued, "said that he hadn't decided to do that .  .  . yet. But it was, you know, still an open question."

Others whom McCain trusts on energy issues also believe he should support drilling in ANWR. Last month, McCain met with Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association and several other independent petroleum producers from the state. They told McCain that they could significantly increase output from offshore oil rigs within months, not years--as those opposed to more drilling have suggested. McCain clearly found them credible. While we were chatting he asked Brooke Buchanan, his press secretary, to check on a letter that Zierman and his colleagues promised to send outlining the benefits of increased offshore drilling. He wants the campaign to use it to support his position on offshore drilling. "They're not ExxonMobil," McCain said. "They are independent petroleum guys from Bakersfield, California."

When I spoke to Zierman on Friday, he said that their conversation had focused on offshore drilling and that McCain hadn't asked about ANWR. If he had, however, he would have discovered that Zierman, too, supports drilling there. "We support light natural gas coming into California," he says. "We support nuclear--even though it competes with our products, it's good for the country. And we support drilling in ANWR."

McCain isn't there yet. His advisers do not know where he'll end up. But he hasn't compared ANWR to the Grand Canyon since early June. And Sarah Palin can be persuasive.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer atTHE WEEKLY STANDARD.