On an oddly defensive conference call, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and White House environmental policy advisor Carol Browner tried to downplay the decision on offshore drilling as not the most important aspect of what was announced today, not as intrusive into coastal areas as suggested, and not even wholly the President’s decision, a remarkable pulling away from a policy they just advanced.

Salazar and Browner highlighted the increased mileage standards, a joint rulemaking between the EPA and the Department of Transportation that was already announced months ago but got finalized today. Browner said that would save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the next several years, which dwarfs the impact of offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, for example, assumed to be the most oil-rich area affected by today’s decision but expected to yield just 100 million barrels. Browner also highlighted the greening of the federal fleet, a doubling of the number of hybrid vehicles purchased by the government.

Salazar added that “the President knows we cannot drill our way to energy independence,” and the President echoed that in his speech making the announcement today. The President tried to frame it as a bridge between the dirty energy past and the clean energy future, to somehow fill in the gaps and reduce dependence on foreign sources of energy. But the White House’s own numbers on how much oil drilling would yield show that to be completely fallacious. In addition, no benefit in terms of production would spring from this decision for several years.

In his speech, the President took a position of triangulating the middle ground between environmentalists and drilling advocates:

Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy [...]

There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling. But what I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy. And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and the long run. To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake.

On the other side, there are going to be some who argue that we don’t go nearly far enough; who suggest we should open all our waters to energy exploration without any restriction or regard for the broader environmental and economic impact. And to those folks I’ve got to say this: We have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves; we consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil. And what that means is that drilling alone can’t come close to meeting our long-term energy needs. And for the sake of our planet and our energy independence, we need to begin the transition to cleaner fuels now.

So the answer is not drilling everywhere all the time. But the answer is not, also, for us to ignore the fact that we are going to need vital energy sources to maintain our economic growth and our security. Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place. Because this issue is just too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again.

Wise Solomon, splitting the baby for us!

But a lot of this is just opening areas to study, like in the mid-Atlantic. And it does seem particularly designed to attract support from a particular group of Senators – “The coastal states with Senators opposed to offshore drilling will not receive any new drilling,” Chris Bowers notes (example: New Jersey Rep. Ron Frank Pallone, who’s still fuming). Those who generally support drilling in the affected areas, like Bill Nelson (FL) and Mark Warner (VA), support this move.

In addition, Browner insisted, the coastal protections, particularly for Florida, were sound. There would be no drilling inside of 125 miles of the shoreline under this plan, a barrier she called “significant.” Salazar added that this was a seven-year plan, and not a license to pillage the nation’s coastlines immediately. Then, Salazar let slip a key piece of information: while the federal moratorium on new drilling expired in 2008, drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico is currently under a Congressional moratorium, and opening that area to drilling “will require a Congressional action for the moratorium to be lifted.”

That really makes this seem like a PR move. The question is: for who? Brad Plumer doesn’t understand how this will get red-state Senators on board with a comprehensive energy plan. Perhaps, he wonders, he wants Republicans to look unreasonable – and they are, today, by blasting this gift to them – but then we’re wandering into “11-dimensional chess” territory. And as for getting Senators aboard his climate bill, well, he does run the risk of losing just as many from the other side of the issue. Bill Nelson signed that bill warning against expanded drilling, be the way, so maybe these concerns have been mollified, but that’s probably not universal.

Plumer adds:

Another possibility, meanwhile, is that this move isn’t focused on the climate-bill debate and is geared more toward public opinion. According to the EIA, gas prices are expected to go up quite a bit this summer (probably shooting north of $3/gallon), and the administration may want to step out ahead of the inevitable teeth-gnashing and garment-rending over the issue. So this could be more about the midterms than rounding up votes in the Senate. Though, granted, this drilling announcement won’t affect summer gas prices in the slightest.

Exactly, so if this is meant to head off criticism about gas prices in the summer, it’s just a stupid bet.

Two other comments. One, this is something of a mini-jobs bill. Exploration and study provides a small hiring boost in these areas. There are serious externality costs to that, but take it for what its worth. Second, there’s Bowers’ dark take.

Rather than trying to placate green groups, the President Obama is playing up how he is charting a unifying course of moderation in opposition to those groups. Much like Blanche Lincoln, he protrays himself as an independent, nonpartisan voice standing up to environmental extremists on behalf of his constiuents.

As I wrote quite often during the health care fight, progressive groups can get as mad as they like when the Obama administration abandons them with policy moves like these. However, since President Obama is more popular among the membership of those groups then even the leaders of those groups, it is difficult for them to effectively fight back [...] Until that changes, the Obama administration will continue to be able to make right-wing deals with Conservadems, and then do some hippie punching afterward, indefinitely.

Actually, sounds about right.

UPDATE: Lowell Feld has more on the conference call.

UPDATE II: The only immediate Presidential action on any of this was to protect the Bristol Bay area in Alaska, which George W. Bush offered up for drilling.