Wall Street collapse derails GOP’s domestic-drilling campaign strategy

(Photo/Due de Hale, Flickr)
(Photo/Due de Hale, Flickr)

With energy prices plummeting right along with the rest of the stock market the past two weeks, Republicans may have lost one of their best weapons for attacking Democrats in the energy battleground state of Colorado.

“What we were watching unfold until the Wall Street issue hit was that energy was quickly becoming and perhaps had become a defining issue in this year’s election,” said Greg Schnacke, a former senior staffer for Kansas Sen. Bob Dole who now heads up Golden, Colo.-based Americans for American Energy.

On Friday, amid concerns that fuel consumption will decline dramatically with a prolonged recession, the price of a barrel of oil dropped under $80 for the first time in a year, and gasoline prices in Colorado have dropped below $3.50 for the first time since last spring.

“[Domestic energy production] certainly had built up as an issue with consumers over the last several months and had replaced the war in Iraq as the issue that was on everyone’s mind, and then this Wall Street issue … I don’t know if it’s taken it off the front page, but it’s certainly shared the front page with the energy issue,” said Schnacke, who headed up the Colorado Oil & Gas Association for 13 years before joining the nonprofit astroturf group AAE.

Congressman Mark Udall, a Democrat from Eldorado Springs who’s engaged in a nasty and costly U.S. Senate battle with Republican and former oil-and-gas executive Bob Schaffer, said recently that the idea that the GOP was gaining because of spiking gas prices and the pressure for more drilling and oil-shale production in Colorado was bogus all along.

“The Republican Party’s narrative that they were gaining because of the high price of gasoline will be found to be somewhat questionable when this campaign concludes,” Udall said. “They had done a good job of spinning the issue, but those of us who had all along said a comprehensive energy policy is the way forward — in other words, there’s no silver bullet, but there’s silver buckshot — were actually being heard by the voters who are making up their minds.”

Udall has long been an advocate of alternative sources of energy and has pushed for greater environmental regulation of the oil-and-gas industry. His “silver buckshot” approach includes limited and careful domestic drilling but with a much greater emphasis on wind, solar and hydro. He also has opened up to pursuing nuclear and clean-coal technology.

“Voters are smarter than some of the pundits, some of the consultants, some of the media people give them credit for,” Udall said. “They understand that yes, we have to do some more drilling, but that isn’t the answer in the long run.”

Schaffer, who last spring barely mentioned rising energy costs when he accepted his party’s nomination to run for retiring Republican Wayne Allard’s seat, began stumping last summer with an old-fashioned gas pump that he said reflected the Udall price of increased energy taxes and bans on domestic drilling. That was when gas prices had surged above $4 a gallon.

“In [Udall’s] mind and the minds of many others who have that sort of Boulder mentality, gasoline was too cheap, and in order for us to change the way we behave as Americans we had to experience pain,” Schaffer said on the stump in August.

Udall accuses Schaffer of being a Johnny-come-lately on alternative fuels and says that as a congressman, he (Udall) has never sought to outright block oil-and-gas drilling the state, just make sure it’s done right — the same approach he advocates for the entire nation.

“The drilling we do has to be responsible. The drilling we do has to be done with the consent of the people affected,” Udall said. “If people in Florida want to do some drilling off their shores and they have a say in it, I think that’s acceptable. But it’s the same way that those of us here in Colorado want to have a big say in whether oil shale’s developed. That’s why I’ve been fighting so hard to make sure we’re not run over by outside interests.”

Schnacke said Democrats now giving concessions to oil-and-gas drilling, allowing offshore-drilling and oil-shale moratoriums to expire, are doing so out of political expediency.

“Some of what was done in the last month was a tactical retreat in order to help some of the politicians standing for election look pro-energy and be able to get past this election, but I think they’ll be right back at it come January because the basic anti-energy bent of the current Senate and House leadership has not abated,” Schnacke said.

Udall acknowledges that, if elected, he’ll likely pursue another moratorium on commercial oil-shale leases, primarily because the technology is not proven and the potential for environmental devastation is too great.

“Those [oil shale] resources belong to us and that’s the reason we want to make sure a royalty structure returns a fair return to us and this isn’t another opportunity for oil-and-gas interests to have record profits,” Udall said.

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