US election: Obama shifts policy on offshore oil drilling as petrol prices soar

Barack Obama reversed his position over petrol prices yesterday in the face of polls showing it has emerged as the dominant issue of the presidential election.

The Democratic candidate said he would dip into the US strategic oil reserves to try to drive down prices, a policy he had previously opposed. He also confirmed that, as president, he would be willing to compromise over his earlier opposition to an expansion of oil drilling in US offshore waters.

John McCain’s campaign team were quick to portray him as “two-faced Obama”. McCain is fighting on an energy platform based on increased drilling, more nuclear plants and cleaner coal.

Obama’s poll lead has dwindled over the past fortnight, in part because McCain’s energy policy is proving to be more popular. A Quinnipiac University poll released on Thursday showed that petrol prices were the main election issue. US drivers are paying almost $4(£2) a gallon, double last year’s price.

Seeking to expand his electoral base, Obama has had to make a series of policy shifts over the past two months, ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to wire-taps and campaign finance.

In a speech setting out a new energy policy in Lansing, Michigan, Obama, who turned 47 yesterday, said US addiction to foreign oil was one of the “most dangerous and urgent threats this nation has ever faced”, from dependence on an unstable Middle East to “the gas prices that are wiping out your pay cheques and straining businesses to the jobs that are disappearing from this state”.

Obama proposed policies aimed at ending within 10 years US dependence on Middle East oil, mainly by a switch to alternative energy sources.

The Democratic party, including Obama, reacted with outrage last month when McCain said he was prepared to reverse a 20-year-old ban on drilling in US offshore waters. But the US public, which had previously supported the ban on environmental grounds, has shifted in favour because of high petrol prices.

Reflecting this switch, Obama hinted on Friday that he would be prepared to accept some offshore drilling. He said he remained opposed but would be willing to accept some to get a bipartisan compromise on energy policy through Congress.

“Like all compromises, this one has its drawbacks,” he said yesterday. “It includes a limited amount of new offshore drilling, and while I still don’t believe that’s a particularly meaningful short-term or long-term solution, I am willing to consider it if it’s necessary to actually pass a comprehensive plan.

“I am not interested in making the perfect the enemy of the good – particularly since there is so much good in this compromise that would actually reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

In another shift, he said: “We should sell 70m barrels of oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve for less expensive crude, which in the past has lowered gas prices within two weeks.”

A further reversal is to give short-term relief to struggling families through a $1,000 rebate, paid for from oil companies’ profits. Obama, during his battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, had resisted a similar proposal that he characterised as a short-term fix.

He proposed to invest $150bn over the next 10 years in alternative energy sources, including a switch to hybrid and plug-in cars.