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Published: Saturday, 6/21/2008

Drilling for pottage

TWO years ago in his State of the Union address, President Bush admitted that "America is addicted to oil" and announced plans to address the problem. He returned to the theme in last year's State of the Union with a bold initiative to address "our dependence on oil" by stressing alternative sources of energy that he said would cut gasoline use by 20 percent over 10 years and confront global climate change.

But that was then. Gasoline is above $4 a gallon, so never mind the environmental happy talk: Now is the time for cynical political talk. Mr. Bush has urged Congress to lift its long-standing ban on offshore oil and gas drilling. He is an ex-oil man in an administration partial to the oil industry and has long been in favor of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a call he has renewed along with seeking to lift restrictions on oil-shale production in several western states. He also signed a bill in 2006 that expanded exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

Notwithstanding his past positions, the President's challenge to Congress was still at odds with his recent rhetoric, and that made it close to the thing supposedly most despised by Republicans: a flip-flop. The GOP's presumptive nominee, John McCain, was even more hypocritical. He supported the ban in the past, but in a speech in Houston Tuesday reversed himself (although he still opposes drilling in ANWR).

The political calculation is plain. This fall, the Republicans are going to tell gas-price-stressed Americans that their plight is the fault of the Democrat-controlled Congress. Mr. Bush couldn't have made this clearer: "I know the Democratic leaders have passed some of these policies in the past. Now that their opposition has helped drive gas prices to record levels, I ask them to reconsider their positions."

In a move that made the political point sharper for Congress (and Democrats), he also said that he wouldn't lift an executive order prohibiting offshore drilling until lawmakers repealed their moratorium on drilling first passed in 1982 and renewed each year since - a period, of course, that includes the six years of Republican rule. And that executive order was first signed by Mr. Bush's father in 1990.

While Democrats have often been more concerned about environmental protection, the truth is that the offshore ban has remained in place for so long because it also had Republican support. If Mr. Bush really wanted to ditch it, why didn't he when he had the chance? Obviously, because the political mood did not favor it - Americans wanted their cars and a healthy environment. At $4-plus a gallon, Mr. Bush wants to play the blame game and cynically trust to public amnesia.

But what good will it do Americans? In fact, this is a quick fix that is not quick. If Congress acted tomorrow to lift the drilling ban, it would be years before production came on line. Even that would not be long-term relief, because the reserves would be drained and Americans would be back in the same hole, except their children would be left with another bitter legacy to add to the mountain of debt they will inherit.

Mr. Bush got it right in the first place: America is addicted to oil. To treat an addiction, you don't seek a cheaper fix when the drug becomes too expensive. You make a change in your life. A true leader would see this; that person would heed the ancient wisdom that you don't sell your birthright for a mess of pottage, which is what lifting the oil drilling bans promise to be.



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