This week, Republican presidential nominee John McCain ventured to Houston, the Oil Capital of America, to lay out his proposed energy policy. When it comes to domestic oil production — drilling — McCain told the audience, “We do have resources, and we do have a choice.” He called for lifting the federal moratorium on offshore drilling (which has been in place since 1981), saying that he believes states should get to decide whether or not they want to grant access to energy companies off their shores:

In oil, gas, and coal deposits, we have enormous energy reserves of our own. And we are gaining the means to use these resources in cleaner, more responsible ways. As for offshore drilling, it’s safe enough these days that not even Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could cause significant spillage from the battered rigs off the coasts of New Orleans and Houston. Yet for reasons that become less convincing with every rise in the price of foreign oil, the federal government discourages offshore production…

But the stakes are high for our citizens and for our economy. And with gasoline running at more than four bucks a gallon, many do not have the luxury of waiting on the far-off plans of futurists and politicians. We have proven oil reserves of at least 21 billion barrels in the United States. But a broad federal moratorium stands in the way of energy exploration and production. And I believe it is time for the federal government to lift these restrictions and to put our own reserves to use.

We can do this in ways that are consistent with sensible standards of environmental protection. And in states that choose to permit exploration, there must be an appropriate sharing of benefits between federal and state governments. But as a matter of fairness to the American people, and a matter of duty for our government, we must deal with the here and now, and assure affordable fuel for America by increasing domestic production.

Although later in the week, Senator McCain suggested that he might possibly rethink his position on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (video available here), in his Houston speech on Tuesday he reaffirmed his anti-drilling stance:

Quite rightly, I believe, we confer a special status on some areas of our country that are best left undisturbed. When America set aside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we called it a “refuge” for a reason.

Even before Senator McCain delivered the Houston speech, the Democratic National Committee released an advisory about McCain’s “flip-flop” on offshore drilling, saying he used to oppose it but now says he is in favor of it.

Not so fast. Senator McCain’s position on oil drilling doesn’t actually seem to be a switch — at least not based on his votes in the Senate and his past comments on the subject. It seems more accurate to say he has had a “mixed position” on this issue over time — consistently opposing drilling in ANWR and allowing for state preferences when it comes to offshore drilling. Using records from Project Vote Smart and the Library of Congress’s Thomas database, it is possible to track whether and how Senator McCain’s position has evolved.

Senator McCain has repeatedly said that he is opposed to drilling in ANWR. A search of the congressional record shows McCain has made a distinction in the past between drilling in ANWR and drilling elsewhere.

A December 10, 2007 Associated Press report of a McCain speech in Aiken, South Carolina notes that, “in response to a question from an audience member, McCain said he believed offshore drilling should be left the coastal state closest to the proposed project. He also said he did not support opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.”

The DNC memo, however, pointed back to articles from 1999 describing Senator McCain’s support for a moratorium on offshore oil drilling when he last ran for president. And going back further to 1992, Senator McCain voted to kill an amendment to energy legislation that year which would have strengthened the role of coastal states in federal offshore drilling decisions.

In 2000 (USA Today and AP reported), the candidates were asked “Should companies that together spent over $1 billion to secure oil leases off the California coast be allowed to drill on them or should an existing moratorium be expanded to ban drilling in those waters?” McCain’s answer:

The leases for offshore oil drilling should never have been granted without allowing Californians a legitimate voice in the decision-making process. I believe it is up to the voters of California to determine the fate of these leases, and as president, I will respect the decision they make regarding the leases. The people of California deserve to be heard, without being forced to resort to legal action against their own government. As president, I will see to it that the interests of the people of California rise above the special interests of Washington, D.C.

So even as far back as 1992, Senator McCain’s position was strikingly similar to his current position: that states closest to the project need to be given a voice.

Based on Senate votes, Senator McCain has supported expanded exploration in non-ANWR areas:

In 2005:

  • He voted yes on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Drilling Amendment; passage would have kept the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge closed to oil drilling.

In 2006:

  • He voted yes on the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 (S. 3711), which would provide “for exploration, development, and production activities for mineral resources in the Gulf of Mexico.”
  • He also voted yes on an amendment that would “provide funding for implementing the Energy Policy Act of 2005 from ANWR.”

In 2007:

  • Senator McCain was not present for the vote on legislation aimed at allowing governor of Virginia to petition the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to allow for natural gas exploration and extraction at least fifty miles from the coastal zone.

In 2008:

  • Senator McCain was not present for a vote (S. Amdt. 4329 to S Con Res 70) that allowed for, among other things, “the development of oil and natural gas resources in coastal areas not covered by a Presidential or Congressional Moratorium.” Senator Obama voted yes.
  • Senator McCain was also not present a vote (S. Amdt. 4207 to S. Con. Res. 70) that allowed for more funding for “the development of natural gas off the coast of Virginia and the development of oil shale resources on public lands.” Senator Obama voted no.

Power Politics

June 19, 2008