Beach blanket boondoggle

July 02, 2006

Wriggle your toes in that glistening white sand, holiday fun seekers, and take a good long look at the mesmerizing vistas off Maryland's pretty piece of the Atlantic Coast.

They may not be available much longer.

A powerful coalition of lawmakers seeking to remove the federal ban on offshore oil and gas drilling won a key victory in the House last week, heightening pressure on the Senate to approve something similar.

Anyone inspired by the high cost of gas to think opening the nation's coastal reserves is a good idea should hear Western Maryland Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett argue otherwise. He's been trying in vain to persuade his colleagues to get serious about transitioning the nation to renewable fuels because the global supply of fossil fuels is running out. Draining the minor reserves believed to lie off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts wouldn't change that reality, Mr. Bartlett says. Further, he contends, whatever fuel reserves remaining in the U.S. should be saved.

Backers of the legislation aren't interested in such common sense, though. In fact, the measure was so outrageously constructed it seemed designed mostly to allow lawmakers to go home for July 4 claiming they did something about gasoline prices.

For example, the bill would transfer more than $100 billion in existing drilling royalties from the federal Treasury to the oil-rich states along the Gulf of Mexico - a provision that appalls the Bush administration.

Plus, coastal states that want to retain the drilling ban would be required to periodically win approval for the exemption from their legislatures and governors.

And, of course, the measure would simply fatten the profits of oil companies while doing nothing to lower pump prices, which are largely set by the world market.

Of perhaps greatest concern in Maryland is the prospect of environmental damage to Ocean City and Assateague Island beaches or to the Chesapeake Bay - particularly if Virginia were to opt for drilling, as expected.

Congress should listen to Mr. Bartlett and put more of its energy into developing renewable fuel alternatives. The tourist and seafood industries, not to mention those soothing vistas, are worth so much more than a short-term fuel fix.

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