Black gold or fool's gold?

Our view: President Obama's plan to open much of the East Coast and other new areas for offshore oil and gas exploration brings sure risks but what benefits?

March 31, 2010

For all those worried about the potential tourism, economic, ecological and aesthetic impact of wind turbines off the coast of Ocean City, how about oil derricks instead? That could be the result of President Obama's announcement Wednesday that he's opening up half of the East Coast, more of the Gulf of Mexico and some new areas of ocean off the coast of Alaska to oil exploration. The move reverses years of bans imposed by presidents or Congress on increasing offshore oil drilling, and Mr. Obama couched the decision as part of a comprehensive strategy to increase security and boost the economy by reducing our dependence on foreign oil. That's a worthy goal, but it's unclear whether the potential benefits of the president's plan outweigh the risks.

The offshore oil drilling industry has gotten safer and cleaner over the years, but spills do happen routinely. According to the U.S. Minerals Management Service, there were 172 spills of at least 50 barrels off of America's coasts from 2000-2009. Not all of those are crude oil spills, and many were the result of the severe Gulf of Mexico hurricanes of 2005. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that year resulted in spills of 741,000 gallons in the Gulf of Mexico, and on-shore facilities associated with the industry spilled 9 million gallons. Federal regulators and the oil industry have also worked over the years to improve technology used to contain spills, but the risk clearly still exists that oil drilled offshore could wind up fouling beaches and fisheries.

For that reason, 10 U.S. senators from the coasts and Great Lakes states, including Maryland's Benjamin L. Cardin, sent a letter to Sens. John Kerry, Lindsay Graham and Joseph Lieberman, who are working on a comprehensive energy and climate change bill, urging them to reject the idea of additional offshore drilling. The tourism and fishing industries on America's coasts produce $11.4 trillion in economic activity, they wrote, and cannot be jeopardized for a drilling program that would have negligible impact on America's fuel supply. Moreover, they note, oil and gas companies already hold leases to 60 million acres from which they are not now producing any fuel.

Gov. Martin O'Malley is also on record in opposition to new drilling off the coast of Maryland in the near future. In a letter to the Interior Department, Governor O'Malley questioned both the ecological impact of drilling and whether states would get a share of the revenue.

President Obama said he wanted to depoliticize the issue of offshore drilling and address it scientifically, with an eye toward creating a balanced approach to fulfilling our energy needs. In conjunction with this announcement, the president noted investments in renewable energy, his administration's loan guarantees for the nation's first new nuclear plant in decades, higher fuel economy standards for cars and trucks and a move to shift the federal vehicle fleet to hybrids.

But offshore drilling is a much bigger political issue than it is an energy issue. As the president noted, America consumes 20 percent of the world's oil but has 2 percent of the world's oil reserves. If our goal is energy independence, drilling is not going to do the job, even if we open up all the coasts with no restrictions whatsoever. And if we consider the risks posed by climate change, anything that enables more use of fossil fuels is a complete mistake. The only reason it is part of the conversation is that powerful special interest in the energy industry stand to make billions from offshore drilling, and they have convinced allies in Congress to take up their cause.

The only way to justify taking the environmental risks of drilling offshore would be if they were part of a deal that secured significant guaranteed environmental benefits -- such as a comprehensive climate bill, and even then it might not be worth it. Offshore drilling is a major political chip that could bring reluctant congressmen on board for a comprehensive energy and climate bill that reduces our dependence not just on foreign oil but on polluting fossil fuels in general. The president should play it cautiously.

Readers respond

The Oil Slickster-in-Chief forgot about opening up the Left Coast to drilling. Hmmm...wonder how that happened. This is just a Trojan Horse for cap-and-trade.

BOS

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