Coastal threat

May 21, 2006

Perhaps it's understandable that a Republican lawmaker from rural northern Pennsylvania would be frustrated at the nation's refusal to allow oil and gas drilling along most of its scenic coast.

High energy costs are making it impossible for American industry to match foreign competition, Rep. John E. Peterson complained last week to his House colleagues. "This is the only country in the world that's locked up its outer continental shelf," he said.

Mr. Peterson's effort to amend a 25-year ban on offshore exploration to permit the search for natural gas was narrowly rejected by the House a few hours later. But that was only the opening skirmish in a broader campaign that poses what may be the gravest threat to the waters off Maryland and other coastal states in a quarter-century.

What inlanders often don't understand is the beaches of Maryland, Delaware, Florida, California and elsewhere on the Atlantic and Pacific represent an economic asset every bit as precious and far less replaceable than manufacturing plants of the Rust Belt. The risk of oil spills to marine life and tourism is far too great to justify the hunt for what could only be a temporary reprieve for America's energy shortages.

Even so, House leaders are expected to soon unveil a rewrite of the oil and gas exploration ban that would allow individual states to opt out. Among states likely to pursue that option is Virginia, where the legislature has voted to grant drilling leases along its coast if the federal moratorium is lifted.

If that happened, Virginia's foolishness could have terrible consequences for Maryland because the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay region is so intertwined. Much like the tired old proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, the trade-off of degrading and perhaps destroying natural resources for the limited amounts of gas or oil that may be available is a bad bargain.

The answer to America's energy problems lies with conservation to reduce demand and with the development of renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. But allies of the oil and gas industries are taking advantage of lawmakers' concerns about soaring energy prices to push what look like easy solutions.

Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican who shares Mr. Peterson's frustration with the drilling ban on 90 percent of the nation's coast, calling it "a silly rule," asked the House on Thursday to repeal the ban altogether. His colleagues declined by a resounding margin.

Those votes will not excuse, though, lawmakers who later succumb to election-year pressure for a false compromise that allows the plunder of national resources in the name of states' rights.

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