This is obviously not the best moment for Congress to rush through an energy bill. The country is caught up in a heated presidential campaign. Voters are furious at high gas prices. Republicans are happily pandering to that anger, while the Democrats fear it. And at the end of this month, just before Congress heads home for the election recess, the longstanding moratorium on offshore drilling is scheduled to expire -- providing an opportunity for more grandstanding.
Congress has sensibly renewed the moratorium each year for the last 26. Unfortunately, these are not sensible times, which means that Congressional Democrats, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, must try hard to make the best of a bad situation.
The situation, briefly, is this: The Republicans have been bludgeoning the Democrats with the claim that Democratic opposition to offshore drilling is to blame for high fuel prices and that drilling is the answer, or one answer, to the country's dependence on foreign oil.
We find it hard to imagine that they really believe what they say. Drilling will have no impact on fuel prices for at least 15 years, if then, and any number of efficiency measures will do more to reduce the country's dependence than drilling for America's modest offshore reserves. But the chant of “drill, baby, drill!” is playing far too well on the campaign trail for the Republicans to let the facts get in the way.
The Republicans have offered bills that would provide broad access to the outer continental shelf and, in one case, allow drilling as close as 12 miles from shore. So Ms. Pelosi is taking no chances. As early as Tuesday, she is expected to unveil what she advertises as a grand compromise. The bill would allow drilling in all of the outer continental shelf beyond 100 miles and between 50 miles and 100 miles offshore from states that permit it.
In exchange, the measure would greatly expand investments in alternative energy. It would require states to obtain more power from renewable sources like wind, mandate more efficient buildings, offer tax incentives for fuel-efficient vehicles like plug-in hybrid cars and pay for much of it with oil royalties and by repealing unnecessary oil industry tax breaks. On the Senate side, moderates from both parties have fashioned a similar compromise. Its main defect is that it would return 30 percent of the royalty revenue from offshore drilling to the coastal states, which looks suspiciously like a bribe to get them to say yes to drilling. That money would be better spent on helping develop alternatives to fossil fuels.
Ms. Pelosi's compromise deserves support. If it fails, the Democrats must fight to renew the moratorium. Otherwise, there could well be oil rigs within three miles of American shores.