Shoreline seduction

May 07, 2007

The siren call of the oil drillers sounds so sweet. More jobs, lower energy prices, greater independence from foreign fuel sources - all accomplished in an environmentally safe and sound manner.

Ha! President Bush and his allies in the energy industry are once again trying to play the American people for suckers, promising far more than they can deliver with no accounting for the considerable cost.

And directly in their sights this time is a 2.9 million-acre tract off the coast of Virginia, where spills and other damage threaten Assateague Island, the Delmarva Peninsula and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

Virginia officials have foolishly exposed themselves to this potential exploitation by approving legislation that would allow exploration for natural gas, signaling a willingness to ease a 25-year ban on oil and gas drilling on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Gov. Tim Kaine notes that the state has not yet approved gas production or even exploration for oil. But once down that road, the last few steps get easier - especially after bringing exploration crews into the rural communities of Virginia's Eastern Shore and Tidewater country, changing them forever with new roads and urban services.

Maryland's federal lawmakers and their colleagues from all the coastal states should save Virginia from itself by blocking the administration's five-year drilling plan - if only to protect their own states by maintaining the quarter-century moratorium.

That ban was imposed after a devastating oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969 woke Americans to the dangers of drilling along shorelines that have economic as well as environmental value as fisheries and tourist destinations. The rising price of oil and the nation's dependence on Mideast sources don't make coastal drilling any less dangerous.

If anything, what Americans should have learned during the intervening period is that the best solution to diminishing oil supplies is reducing demand through conservation and alternative energy sources. Destroying unspoiled coastlines, thriving fisheries and a rural way of life to slurp up the last few drops of oil will result before long in all three being gone forever.

Communities along the Gulf of Mexico have not been able to resist entreaties from the energy industry, and in return for their support of expanded drilling will receive a 37.5 percent share of the take from new oil leases. Similarly, Alaska relies so heavily on oil revenues that the state was never included in the coastal ban. A Bush proposal to allow oil drilling in Bristol Bay near one of the world's largest salmon runs could take effect as soon as July unless Congress votes to prohibit it.

As Greek mythology warns, the sirens must be ignored. If Congress is lulled into inaction by energy industry promises, it will be too late to save what's been lost.

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