Two years ago, when gas was more than $4 a gallon and before a BP oil operation began spewing thousands of barrels of oil daily into the Gulf of Mexico, many politicians advocated expanded offshore oil drilling.
That included candidates and political leaders with little control over the nation’s energy policy.
Republican state Rep. Kevin Parker, for example, won a state House seat representing Spokane’s highly contested 6th District in 2008 after promising to “push for responsible domestic” offshore drilling.
When he was locked in a tight race to unseat a Democratic incumbent, Parker sent campaign mailers to voters expressing his support for offshore drilling. Asked at the time if that included drilling along Washington’s coast, which would be the only shoreline a Washington state legislator could have influence over, he said he was unsure.
Parker said Thursday, in prepared remarks, that he supports “a balanced approach” on energy, “one that takes both environmental and economic stewardship into account.” He cited the cost in lives and jobs of the Gulf oil disaster and criticized the BP response as “frustratingly slow and inadequate.”
The disaster shouldn’t mark the end of expanded coastal drilling, but serve as a lesson, he said: “Undoubtedly, stopping the leak, cleanup, and responding to the needs of the adjacent communities is paramount. We must then learn from the mistakes and apply them in the future.”
As of Thursday, no one had filed to run against Parker, but he has raised $124,000 for a campaign, including $800 from Chevron Corp., which in a news release last year said it is “widely recognized as a leader in deepwater drilling.” Like BP, Chevron partners with Transocean on deep-water projects in the Gulf of Mexico.
At least one candidate, however, said he’s changed his mind.
John Ahern, who lost his 6th District House seat in 2008 and is trying to mount a comeback, said this week he’s far less enthusiastic about offshore drilling, particularly off Washington’s coast.
In 2008, after Parker made drilling an issue in local legislative campaigns, Ahern took it farther by proclaiming his support for drilling off Washington’s coast.
“What we’ve learned is how all that deep-sea drilling can be a disaster,” Ahern said this week. “I just can’t see it off the coast of Washington or Oregon.”
Instead, Ahern said oil exploration should be expanded in the United States on land.
Ahern faces two opponents in the race for the seat he used to hold: incumbent Democratic state Rep. John Driscoll, who beat Ahern by 72 votes in 2008, and Republican Shelly O’Quinn.
The two candidates with the most votes in the August primary will move on to the November election.
Driscoll said this week that he continues to oppose drilling off Washington’s coast. He added that investments in new energy technology should focus on renewable sources.
“We need to be energy independent, but I don’t think that oil in the long run is where we ought to be investing,” Driscoll said.
O’Quinn said Wednesday that she didn’t want to take a stance on drilling off the coast of Washington because it’s unlikely to happen in the next decade – if ever. By the time drilling is in issue here, she said, technology and circumstances will be different.
“It’s just not something that is economically feasible in this state,” O’Quinn said.
Oil drilling was a hot topic in Washington in the 1980s after the Interior Department included the state on a list of places being considered for leases for oil and gas drilling. In 1990, the issue subsided after President George H.W. Bush barred new oil leasing along much of the U.S. coastline, including Washington’s.
Paul Johnson, a University of Washington oceanography professor, said oil companies have explored Washington’s coast for oil before and come up empty. He doubts that there are any large reservoirs of oil to be found along the state’s coast. If there were, Johnson said he would oppose offshore drilling in Washington.
“It’s a very sensitive marine environment,” he said. “This is not a flat, lifeless mud bottom.”
The other 6th District seat up for grabs this year is the Senate seat held by Democrat Chris Marr.
He said he opposes drilling off Washington’s coast.
“The risk is far too great in relation to what we would gain,” Marr said.
Marr faces a challenge from Republican Michael Baumgartner. Baumgartner said this week that he supports offshore drilling in general, “with proper environmental standards.” He said he’s uncertain if he could ever support it off Washington’s coast. He said he doubts it would become an issue in the state.
“I’d have to look and see,” Baumgartner said. “It would depend.”