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Can Offshore Drilling Save the Climate Bill?

The timing is a bit odd, considering that the full Senate is finally about to take up the Democrats’ health care bill. But a somewhat surprising editorial in this Sunday’s New York Times by Sens. John Kerry and Lindsay Graham has given hope to some very smart climate-policy watchers that a substantive climate bill may indeed pass the Senate this year.

When last we checked in on the climate bill three months ago, after it had narrowly escaped the House, we concluded that although there are theoretically as many as 66 votes in play in the Senate, in practice it would struggle to get more than about 52-55 votes given the current political environment. In broad strokes, there are probably four factors that govern the Senate’s appetite to pass a climate bill: the overall strength of the economy, the price of fossil fuels (higher is more favorable), Presidential popularity, and recent temperatures and weather conditions. Since July, the economy has improved, but not yet in a way that substantially benefits Main Street; Obama’s approval rating has fallen; gas prices have held roughly steady, and we did not have a particularly warm or hurricane-y summer. Thus, the fundamentals have not really improved.

But the bill that Kerry and Graham are promoting is a different bill than the Waxman-Markey bill that the House approved. Although not yet fully formed, it appears to include support for both offshore drilling and nuclear energy, which the Waxman bill did not. It is really quite similar, actually, to the “all-of-the-above” approach advanced by John McCain on the campaign trail last year.

Let’s focus on the first of those two things: offshore drilling. How many additional votes might it buy the Democrats? There are 23 U.S. states with at least some ocean coastline; let’s briefly consider the political implications of expanded drilling in each of them:

Southern Atlantic Coast

Florida. Florida’s coastline is both highly populated and highly valuable, and so its residents have generally been a little more trepidatious about offshore drilling than those in neighboring states. It’s also a fairly strongly pro-environmental state, with its own cap-and-trade program in place, and which has ample reason to be concerned about global warming because of the potential for increased hurricane activity and eventually rising coastlines. In other words, Florida has better reasons to support the climate bill than the offshore drilling provisions. But they probably can’t hurt with Republican caretaker George LeMeiux — already a plausible ‘yes’ vote on climate — depending on what signal he gets from Charlie Crist.

Georgia. Georgia has a relatively scant 100 miles of coastline, but its Congressmen have been strongly in favor of offshore drilling initiatives. Still, it’s two senators are rather conservative, and it would take a lot to sway them. Johnny Isakson, who is somewhat more moderate than colleague Saxby Chambliss, is the more likely of the two to be won over.

South Carolina. The Magnolia State is very much in favor of drilling and indeed this may have been what led Lindsay Graham to lend his support to Kerry’s bill. On the other hand, Jim DeMint is one of the most conservative members of the Senate and can’t be expected to support the bill no matter what.

North Carolina. North Carolina has historically been less gung-ho about offshore drilling than its neighbors, as it has a somewhat environmentally sensitive coastline. But governor Bev Perdue recently commissioned a study to consider the impact of drilling off her state’s coast, suggesting that attitudes might be changing. North Carolina is not also not a terribly carbon-intensive state, as it has more of a service sector economy. Still, while the conditions are theoretically right to get two votes from North Carolina, Richard Burr is running for re-election in a state where Barack Obama has become fairly unpopular, and it would take a lot for him to do anything to help the President.

Virginia. Virginia has been pretty enthusiastic about offshore drilling in the past, but since Jim Webb and Mark Warner were likely votes for the climate bill in the first place, this won’t give the Democrats much additional leverage.


Maryland. No gains to be had here since Barb Mikulski and Ben Cardin are liberals who will support the climate bill no matter what.

Delaware. Our model likewise sees Tom Carper and Ted Kaufman as highly likely to vote for the climate bill, so providing for drilling off Delaware’s 28 miles of coastline wouldn’t make much difference.

New Jersey. Would likely oppose drilling efforts since it depends on its coastline for tourism revenues; Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez are sure votes for the climate bill, besides.

New York. They ain’t about to start drilling off Long Island.

New England

Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts. Protective enough of the property values along their coastlines that they’ve been reluctant to allow wind farms, let alone offshore oil platforms. In addition, exploratory efforts in these regions have generally not uncovered potentially oil-rich areas. But this is largely academic since all six senators from these states should be reliable votes on the climate bill anyway.

New Hampshire. With just 13 miles of coastline, it’s not going to matter one way or another, although Judd Gregg remains an important swing vote on climate.

Maine. This one is potentially more interesting, since Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are such critical swing votes on climate, but Maine relies on its coastline for tourism and fishing, which along with logging form the backbone of its economy. In addition, Collins and Snowe have opposed offshore drilling initiatives in the past. Snowe and Collins will choose to support or oppose the bill based on criteria other than offshore drilling.

Gulf Coast

Mississippi. Although offshore drilling is already allowed off the coast of Mississippi and the other states of the Gulf Coast, Governor Haley Barbour and Sen. Roger Wicker have generally been quite outspoken about wanting to expand drilling further, with Wicker having authored a bill to that effect last August. He and Thad Cochran are probably too conservative to have their votes swayed on this basis alone, but they’re worth watching.

Alabama. As in Mississippi, most of Alabama’s coastline is already open to offshore drilling, although a small additional slice could be opened if the existing ban were lifted. Still, Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby are even more conservative than their colleagues from Mississippi, and are unlikely to be swayed to support the climate bill.

Louisiana. Oil wells already dot the entirety of Lousiana’s coastline, so there might not be much direct benefit to the state, but the state could benefit indirectly via its refining industry, and Governor Bobby Jindal recently drafted a letter to the Department of the Interior supporting expanded offshore drilling efforts. David Vitter almost certainly wouldn’t come on board no matter what, but the vote to watch here is Mary Landrieu, one of the more conservative and parochial Democrats who might be looking for a bargain.

Texas. Governor Rick Perry has staked out an extremely strong stance against the climate bill, which is an impossible sell in this carbon-loving state. Kay Bailey Hutchison is not going to risk a yes vote when she’s about to face off against Perry in a Republican primary, nor will a member of the Republican leadership like John Cornyn lend his support.

Pacific Coast

California, Oregon, Washington. Although the oil industry has some onshore presence in California, these pro-environment states have generally had no interest in further offshore exploration, and all six senators from the region are fairly liberal Democrats who would have voted for the Waxman bill as is.

Alaska and Hawaii

Alaska. Alaska has a complicated relationship with energy and the environment, but the state’s residents are strongly supportive of expanded drilling programs both offshore and in ANWR — no surprise, since by law each resident is entitled to a share of the profits from such efforts. Expanded drilling could all but assure the vote of Mark Begich, and put Lisa Murkowski very much into play.

Hawaii. I’ve never heard of any proposal to drill off Hawaii, and since Sens. Akaka and Inoyue are going to vote for the climate bill anyway, it wouldn’t really make any difference politically.

…So what does this get the Democrats? It gets them Linsday Graham’s vote, and possibly Lisa Murkowski’s. It takes Mark Begich from a leaner to a likely yes. It might encourage Mary Landrieu, and possibly George LeMieux of Florida, to look more sympathetically at the bill. Then there are a whole host of more remote possibilities: Isakson of Georgia, and perhaps Cochran and Wicker of Mississippi or Burr of North Carolina; none of those votes are likely, but they become more plausible with offshore drilling in place. Overall, it seems to be worth something like 2-4 votes at the margin.

That would give the Kerry-Graham bill a fighting chance, especially if an additional vote or two — possibly John McCain’s — can also be picked up as a result of the nuclear energy compromise. Of course, that’s assuming that no liberals would rebel against the new provisions, but the opposition to both offshore drilling and nuclear energy seems to be fairly soft in the liberal caucus. I would not place money on the climate bill passing this year, but the odds would seem to be a lot better with the drilling compromise in place.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.