Drill, Maybe Drill

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

AT MIDNIGHT last night, the chanters of "drill, baby, drill" got their wish. The congressional ban on offshore drilling for oil expired after it was not included in the continuing resolution that will keep the federal government funded until March. This is a triumph for President Bush, who rescinded an executive order prohibiting exploration of the outer continental shelf (OCS) in July and who then used consumer anger over high gasoline prices to erode resistance by the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill to lifting the 25-year-old congressional moratorium on such exploration. But the victory will not have the impact Mr. Bush implied.

Turning up the pressure on Democrats, the president and other Republicans suggested that opening coastal waters to oil drilling would lead to an immediate decline in prices at the pump. The reality is that it will be at least two years before an oil lease in a newly opened area (such as off the coast of Virginia, as could happen in 2010) is awarded and at least several more years, if not a decade, before crude makes its way from deepwater wells to your gas tank. That's because there are a number of necessary requirements that will take time to meet. The OCS Lands Act requires a five-year plan from the Interior Department that determines where and when lease sales will take place. The department is amending the current plan, which requires public comment. And there are environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act, which gives states the right to review federal actions that would affect land and water in their coastal areas.

The next president will be tasked with defining the new era in offshore drilling. To varying degrees, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) both back offshore drilling. The Democratic majority in Congress is optimistic that an Obama victory and expected increased majorities in both the House and the Senate will lead to a reinstatement of the moratorium. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said last week, "At least temporarily, the moratorium is lifted." But some lasting drilling authority is needed.

Linking offshore drilling with high gasoline prices was baldly political. But it sparked a much-needed debate in this country about energy independence and how to achieve it. We need alternative sources of energy to help cure our addiction to imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More important, in a world of skyrocketing demand for energy, it is becoming untenable for the United States to consume 20 percent of the world's oil -- including from places where environmental concerns are equally relevant -- while doing nothing to explore its own shores for resources.

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