More drilling isn't the answer

John McCain wheeled out another piece of his energy policy this week, proposing that the US lift its longstanding ban on new off-shore oil drilling and leave the regulation of future exploration in the hands of state governments. "We must embark on a national mission to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil," McCain said. "We have untapped oil reserves of at least 21 billion barrels in the United States ... It is time for the federal government to lift these restrictions."

McCain's move, which came on the heels of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney's overblown calls for off-shore oil exploration, is an endorsement of the notion that America can drill her way out of her current energy crisis. It's also, at least in the eyes of the GOP's conservative flank, a potential stepping stone to a fully-fledged flip-flop on drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, which McCain has so far opposed. Either way, it's potentially a good electoral strategy: according to a recent Zogby poll, 65 percent of Americans favor off-shore drilling, and 52 percent favor drilling in the Arctic.

And worryingly, Democrats have so far struggled to come up with a clear and convincing response. In the House and the Senate, Democrats sought to counter McCain's proposals by turning the tables on the oil giants, arguing that the companies shouldn't be allowed to explore more land until they've fully exhausted their current concessions. "The vast majority of oil and natural gas resources on federal lands are already open for drilling, and they are not being tapped," declared Sen. Chris Dodd.

That argument is easily countered: not all the land that's leased to oil companies ultimately proves oil-rich, so it's inevitable that some land will remain undeveloped. Worse, it's a line of attack that buys into the claim that with enough exploration and development, America can drill her way out of the mess she's in. That's simply not the case: the US guzzles down a quarter of the world's oil supply but has only 3 percent of global oil stocks, so it's simply not possible to drill our way to energy independence. (Tapping those much-vaunted Arctic oil reserves, for example, would lead to a piffling 4-cent reduction in gas prices by 2025.)

The bottom line is that McCain's effort to open up more land for oil drilling makes about as much sense as his much-derided “gas tax holiday”. Democrats ought to denounce it as the populist poppycock that it is.