By MARSHA MERCER
On Nov. 7, 1973, amid gas lines and fear that winter heating oil would be scarce, President Richard Nixon declared Project Independence 1980.
“Let us set as our national goal -- in the spirit of Apollo, with the determination of the Manhattan Project -- that by the end of this decade we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy source,” Nixon urged the nation in a televised address from the Oval Office.
Lofty rhetoric, like oil crises, may come and go, but energy independence eludes us always.
The latest president to promote energy independence stood before an F-18 Navy jet fighter called the Green Hornet -- it runs on a biomass fuel mixture -- and challenged the country to “break out of the old ways of thinking, to think and act anew…so we are no longer tethered to the whims of what happens somewhere in the Middle East or with other major oil-producing nations.”
President Barack Obama approved, as part of his energy independence strategy, greening the federal vehicle fleet, expanding nuclear power and drilling for oil and gas 50 miles off the Atlantic coast from Delaware to Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico.
His announcement on Wednesday managed to please almost no one.
Environmentalists predicted dire consequences for blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, green jobs and white-sand beaches. Some on the left charged that Obama had reneged on a campaign promise to protect coastal areas. In truth, that promise had been short-lived.
In June 2008, with gas above $4 a gallon, candidate Obama, on the banks of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Fla., told reporters that offshore drilling, proposed by rival John McCain, would not lower gas prices and would “worsen our addiction to oil.” Obama pledged to keep in place the moratorium against offshore oil and gas exploration and to protect coastlines.
Two months later, though, the candidate said he was open to the idea of drilling as part of a larger energy package. And, in the State of the Union address in January, he mentioned the need for offshore drilling.
If some on the left felt betrayed, some on the right were bothered that Obama now might gain support from undecided senators for the climate-change bill.
Congressional GOP leaders grumbled that the drilling plan was too limited. Obama is protecting the West Coast, where drilling is unpopular, and Bristol Bay in Alaska. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar described Bristol Bay as “simply too special to drill.”
“There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling,” Obama said. “But what I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”
And to those who complain the plan is too small: “We have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves; we consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil. And what that means is that drilling alone can’t come close to meeting our long-term energy needs.”
One place where the announcement met with jubilation was Virginia. Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, trumpeted the move, saying it will help make Virginia the “energy capital of the East Coast” and create a job boom. The state’s Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Jim Webb, Democrats, also support offshore drilling.
As for that pesky matter of changing the law to ensure that Virginia gets a cut of the revenues, the state’s members of Congress are on the case.
In North Carolina, Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, sounded miffed that she learned only the night before that Obama was proceeding with offshore drilling. Perdue said she would be “aggressively engaged” in the process, and she too mentioned wanting a share of any revenues for her state.
It’s now Obama’s time to turn his fine words into deeds and make progress where every president since Nixon has not. In his speech before the Green Hornet, Obama sounded undeterred by the decades of failure and by the recent history of fierce partisanship.
“I think that we can break out of the broken politics of the past when it comes to our energy policy. I know that we can come together to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation that's going to foster new energy -- new industries, create millions of new jobs, protect our planet, and help us become more energy independent,” the president said.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.