Ambinder on McCain on offshore drilling: Does not compute.

Marc Ambinder wonders whether John McCain’s flip-flop on offshore drilling might be a reaction to new circumstances, rather than mere political cynicism. Ambinder lists our growing knowledge about climate change as one of those new circumstances. Huh?

Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic is doing his best to maintain his objectivity as between McCain and Obama in the face of the well-known liberal bias of the facts. But sometimes Ambinder leans over too far in his attempt to be upright. Here’s Ambinder on McCain’s flip-flop on offshore drilling (which McCain now hints may be followed up by a flip-flop on the Alskan Natural Wildlife Reserve):

So McCain changed his mind about an issue. He’s moving away from the default environmentalist position, so his “flipflopping” is automatically an issue. Criticizing the policy is an appropriate way to approach it if you’re an Obama supporter, but why begrudge the man for changing his mind as conditions (our general awareness of climate change, the Iraq war, gas prices, etc) have changed? Perhaps he changed his mind for the wrong reason… but that’s an argument that one has to make, not just assume.

[emphasis added]

Yes, if you ignore the numbers you can imagine that drilling offshore would do something about gas prices. And yes, the Iraq war reminds us that reliance on Middle East crude has costs other than the dollar costs.

But the climate change issue points in precisely the opposite direction; it would be a good reason for someone to switch from support for offshore drilling to opposition, but not the otherway around. When we didn’t know about climate change, the argument “We’re importing too much oil, so we should produce more domestically” made a certain amont of sense (again, ignoring the numbers). Now that we know about climate change, the problem isn’t just that we’re importing too much oil, it’s that we’re burning too much oiL. Offshore drilling is no part of the solution to that problem.

So the least hypothesis still seems to be that McCain changed his position because the oil and gas industry is a big part of the Republican coalition generally, and of his own donor base specifically.

Update A reader points out that since oil creates less GHG per BTU than coal, and offshore oil less GHG per BTU (and less environtmental insult of other kinds) than oil from shale or tar sands, it’s not necessarily irrational to move toward support for offshore drilling in response to concerns about global warming. I don’t think McCain has said any of that, and McCain seems to have taken no position on the Bush Administration proposal to open the Green River Basin to oil-shale mining, but as a logical matter McCain’s change could have come in response to new facts rather than merely being an exercise in opportunism. Ambinder 1, Kleiman 0.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: