WHATEVER LOFTY words may be uttered about our nation's energy policy as the Senate debates its energy bill over the next few weeks, it is virtually certain that when the debate gets into details, parochial interests will take over. That's certainly what happened last week when senators started to discuss lifting the partial moratorium on drilling for oil and gas in the nation's outer continental shelf. This slice of water, which lies between the offshore boundaries of three to nine miles and the 200-mile limit of U.S. government control, has with some exceptions been off-limits even to exploration in recent years because of the environmental damage that oil spills and water pollution caused by drilling can do to coastlines and wildlife.
The current bill does not mandate drilling but rather proposes that the federal government commission an inventory to determine what really lies buried beneath the outer continental shelf. Nevertheless, senators Republican and Democratic from states such as California and Florida, where there are strong popular objections to offshore drilling, immediately opposed the measure. By contrast, senators from states where there is public support for drilling, among them Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) and George Allen (R-Va.) were in favor, at the very least, of allowing some states to "opt in" to the inventory or commission their own. Both Ms. Landrieu and Mr. Allen are open about their motivations: They hope that a portion of their states' offshore oil revenue could eventually be channeled into their states' budgets.
But on this issue, as on a number of energy issues to come, all senators should keep the bigger picture in mind. The advocates for federal control over the outer continental shelf have better legal, practical and moral arguments. There isn't, after all, an easy way to determine where the wider coastal waters of Florida (which opposes drilling) end and those of Georgia (which supports drilling) begin. Certainly a major oil spill could affect more than one state. At the same time, the nation's oil supply is a matter of national, not local, interest. If technology improves to a point where drilling is no longer potentially harmful, and if oil prices rise to a point that they make further drilling imperative, then there may be a need to lift the moratorium, at least in some places. Either way, neither Florida nor Louisiana nor any other state should have a veto over the national policy decision. Whatever version of the measure the Senate finally settles upon should reflect that basic philosophy.