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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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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.