VISUALIZE A SHOAL in the middle of the ocean. The shallow water there is a few degrees warmer than the depths surrounding it. Place it at a spot where two currents collide -- one flowing northeast and the other southwest -- so that the water rotates slowly over the shoal. As though a giant pot were being stirred by an invisible cook, this rotation mixes the contents of the water and aerates it as well. The unique brew creates and sustains the world's richest fishery.
In fact, there is such a place. It's in the Atlantic and it's called Georges Bank. There are more fish there per square meter than anyplace else in the world. It has been fished continuously for 350 years and today brings in well over $1 billion in revenue a year -- every year -- from commercial fishing alone. It is also the spawning ground for a large numbers of species that populate the North Atlantic -- cod, haddock, sole, flounder, lobster, scallops and more.
Beneath this churning natural factory lies some oil and gas, and now -- what else? -- the Department of Interior has announced that it intends to sell leases to drill there. No one knows exactly how much oil is in the area to be sold, though Interior is predicting that the "most probable find" will be about 150 million barrels. That is a very small field. To judge how small, assume for the sake of argument that the actual find is double what the government predicts. That would be an amount of energy equal to eight days of current U.S. consumption. Or, spreak over 20 years (the estimated life of the field), the most promising area of the Georges Bank might contribute as much as 9.5 hours of U.S. energy needs every year.
The economics of a decision to drill don't look so good, either. Suppose that the field yields the government prediction, 150 million barrels, which sell at an average price (in current dollars) of $30 per barrel. Even during the short life of the oilfield, the fishery is worth about five times as much -- without counting the substantial revenues from recreational fishing. But its true value cannot be calculated since the fishery will, if properly managed, keep on producing fish forever. Thus the decision to develop Georges Bank puts at risk a resource whose value is infinite for the sake of a finite resource worth about $4.5 billion. Energy is on everyone's mind these days, but it would be stupid to forget that, from the point of view of human survival, energy is a secondary resource -- food is primary.And fish, in particular, is a crucial source of the world's protein.
Those who want to drill argue that, if special precautions are taken, the risk of damaging the fishery is small. But how small? And is the small amount of oil that would be yielded worth taking any risk for? Spawning grounds are extremely vulnerable to oil pollution. One blowout like the one that has been gushing in the Bay of Campeche for four months could spell disaster. The fact is that underwater drilling is still a dangerous and unpredictable technology. Only a few months ago the oil industry argued that exploratory drilling poses no danger since there had never been a blowout during exploration: Campeche, which has spewed out more than 2 million barrels so far, is an exploratory well.
The arguments against drilling on Georges Bank are so overwhelming that one must ask why Interior is so determined to push ahead, especially when it has dozens of offshore leases of much greater potential to sell. The reason is apparently that Georges Bank has beome a symbol. Angered by a court decision that halted an earlier lease sale in the area, Interior seems to be trying to prove that, despite its reputation for environmental concern, it can be as gungho as any other department in pushing energy development. It is intolerable that such a risk be taken to salvage bureaucratic pride.
If the energy crisis has taught us anything, it is surely that we have often used natural resources carelessly, even blindly, and are now suffering the consequences. It would be the ultimate irony if, in pursuit of a few more drops of energy, we jeopardize or destroyed a resource of even greater consequence. The Georges Bank lease sale is a bad decision that begs to be reversed.