Nearly two thousand years ago, Saint Paul was travelling along the Road to Damascus to persecute the Christians there, when he was struck blind (temporarily) by a bright light from the sky. He became convinced of the error of his ways, and subsequently became the most prominent of the Apostles. Hence the phrase “Seeing the Light”.
It seems that President Barack Obama has had a rather similar experience. Cast your mind back to the Presidential Election campaign. The cry of the Republican Right and their cheer-leader Sarah Palin was “Drill, Baby, Drill!“. They saw the need for energy security, and for increased oil production within the USA. So they wanted to drill in Alaska, and in a range of off-shore sites around the US coastline.
By contrast, Obama’s Democrats, with their rag-tag and bob-tail of green activists and think-tanks and foundations and NGOs, were dead against it. Oil was bad. Oil companies were bad. Big oil companies were very bad indeed. Drilling was bad. It was better that an owl’s nest should be protected in the wilderness than that a million Americans should drive cars. We had to keep the oil rigs out of fragile and pristine environments in Alaska, and around America’s shores.
Of course Republicans mostly care about wild-life and pristine environments too, but they also believe you need some balance, and they know that with proper regulation and forethought, drilling and conservation can exist side-by-side. And they have looked at the projections for energy requirements in coming decades, and they see we need all the oil we can get.
Obama was elected (to a considerable extent) by Hollywood and the Sierra Club and GreenPeace and Friends of the Earth. So we can only imagine their impotent rage when their champion announced in the last couple of days that he was prepared to sanction drilling round much of America’s coastline, and even to contemplate exploration in the Holy-of-Holies, Alaska. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin also faces a dilemma: to cheer because Obama has finally got something right — or to regret the loss of a great campaign slogan.
We must be careful not to get carried away. Obama’s loosening of controls on drilling goes nowhere near what was intended by the previous administration, and is nothing like enough. But it’s a first step. It’s also deeply political. He’d sweetened the left with his health-care bill, and he felt he could reach out, if not to the right, at least to the centre ground, and perhaps ease the way for his Cap’n’Trade bill in the Senate. After Health went through in the teeth of united Republican opposition, Obama would dearly like to get a few moderate Republicans on board for Cap’n’Trade.
Nevertheless, there is a deeper shift here. Earlier on, Obama seemed inclined to accept the daft green proposition that we could forget oil, coal and nuclear, and instead power America with wind turbines. That rhetoric has gone. Obama still pays lip-service to renewables, but the emphasis has shifted to oil and nuclear power. Finally, as he sees that light on his own Damascus Road, Obama has got it. Renewables will certainly contribute at the margin, and that’s all to the good. But you won’t run an advanced economy without reliable, mainstream, base-load power.
Here we see one of the few eternal truths of politics. During the campaign you can say what you like. But if elected, you have to deal with the real world.