‘Drill, baby, drill’: The surprising history of Donald Trump’s fossil-fuel slogan

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As Donald Trump prepares for this year’s US presidential election, he continues to summarise his energy policies with one simple slogan: “Drill, baby, drill.”

The Republican candidate has laid claim to the phrase, arguing that more drilling will allow him to cut inflation and flood the country with the “liquid gold” that is oil.

However, it was Michael Steele, the US politician who served as the first African-American lieutenant governor of Maryland and chair of the Republican National Committee, who came up with the slogan back in 2008.

Speaking to Carbon Brief, Steele stresses that Trump had “nothing to do” with “drill, baby, drill” – a phrase he coined to promote US independence from Middle Eastern oil.

Expressing regret that it has been taken up by the Republican challenger for the White House, Steele says that, with the rise of electric cars, today the slogan could change to “plug, baby, plug”.

Here, Carbon Brief explores the history of “drill, baby, drill”, from the Black Panther-associated slogan “burn, baby, burn” through to its status as a rallying cry for pro-fossil fuel US conservatives.

‘Drill, baby, drill’

In a recent interview with Fox News, Trump explained his plans for US fossil-fuel production if he wins November’s election, saying:

“We are going to – I used this expression, now everyone else is using it so I hate to use it, but – drill, baby, drill.”

It is a phrase that he has repeated at rallies across the nation in recent months, sticking with his preference for three-word campaign slogans.

Yet, despite Trump’s assertion, it was Steele who invented the phrase. While addressing the Republican National Convention in 2008, he told the crowd:

“Let’s reduce our dependency on foreign sources of oil, and promote oil-and-gas production at home. Let me make it very clear: Drill, baby, drill – and drill now.”

Steele tells Carbon Brief that the slogan came to him late at night, after a fit of “writer’s block”.

“Donald Trump…his BS aside, had nothing to do with ‘drill, baby drill’,” says Steele, who today is a staunch critic of the Republican presidential candidate.

Steele was met with rapturous applause at the 2008 convention. Chants of “drill, baby, drill” from the crowd even interrupted a speech by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Michael Steele speaks at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota on 3 September 2008.
Michael Steele speaks at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota on 3 September 2008. Credit: Ron Edmonds / Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

This was during a period of soaring fuel prices in the US, linked to conflict in the Middle East. The government was under significant pressure to expand offshore drilling.

Later that year, the “drill, baby, drill” slogan was taken up by supporters throughout the campaign of Republican John McCain, in his unsuccessful presidential bid against Barack Obama.

It became particularly associated with Sarah Palin, the climate-sceptic Republican vice-presidential pick, who said in a debate with her Democratic challenger Joe Biden:

“The chant is ‘drill, baby, drill’. And that’s what we hear all across this country in our rallies because people are so hungry for those domestic sources of energy.”

In the years that followed, the phrase was repeated endlessly by Republican politicians, as well as in comment articles and political analysis. (It did, however, see a dip in popularity following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, with Senate Republicans stating that they had never endorsed such a phrase.)

Since then, the slogan has spread and been applied to countries from Scotland to Guyana. In recent years, it has even been used to lobby for the expansion of gas in Africa.

‘Burn, baby, burn’

Despite its runaway success, there was some initial bemusement from commentators at a slogan that appeared to have been derived from “burn, baby, burn”.

That phrase, which has since made its way into everything from disco songs to hot sauce, was originally associated with Black nationalist group the Black Panthers and particularly the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. 

It was chanted as buildings were set on fire, amid civil unrest sparked by police violence against an African-American man.

Writing shortly after the Republican National Convention in 2008, journalist Derrick Z Jackson alluded to this when he wrote in the Boston Globe:

“This 93% White gathering blithely stole from the race riots of the ’60s to lustily chant ‘drill, baby, drill’.”

‘Plug, baby, plug’

For his part, Steele tells Carbon Brief that his intention was to use a colloquial expression to “connect it to something that was very real” – namely, cutting US reliance on Middle Eastern oil. He explains his thinking at the time:

“We should look at this from a very basic point of view, let’s not overthink it. We have the capacity, we have the means. Drill, baby, drill.”

However, he expresses frustration at its adoption by Trump:

“Unfortunately, a lot of people use it…in a way that they don’t fully appreciate what the point was, and the point was the self-sufficiency of the American spirit.”

Today, the US is no longer reliant on oil from the Middle East and is, in fact, the world’s largest oil producer

A key focus of current US energy policy is achieving independence from Chinese electric-vehicle manufacturing through measures in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). However, Trump has pledged to scrap the IRA along with other environmental measures.

Steele, who has expressed climate-sceptic views himself in the past, says that his point in 2008 was not to override environmental commitments. He says:

“It’s not just ‘drill with abandon’, it’s also the idea of drilling responsibly and understanding the impacts that we do have environmentally.”

With the growth of electric cars and other technologies in the US, he adds:

“‘Drill, baby, drill’ may at some point in the future change to…‘plug, baby, plug’. Plugging your electric car into the port…It is the idea of self-sufficiency, independence, freedom, which again is an orientation that very much is in line – well, was in line – with the old Republican party. That seems to have given way to something very different today.”

Nevertheless, Steele accepts that while he will “always be there to remind [Trump]” of where the slogan came from, it is now out of his hands:

“My only regret is that I didn’t copyright it and put it on a T-shirt.”

A shorter version of this article was first published in DeBriefed, Carbon Brief’s weekly climate newsletter, on 15 March. Subscribe for free.

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