THE GUERRILLA WARFARE over energy and the environment goes on and on -- expensively, wastefully and, worst of all, inconclusively. It's being fought mostly through the tangled jungles of the regulatory agencies and various court systems. Now a federal judge in New York has delivered an opinion that holds up indefinitely any oil and gas drilling operations off the East Coast. The environmental planning was, in the judge's view, inadequate under the standards of the Natural Environmental Policy Act.
By itself, this delay in offshore drilling will probably turn out to be less than crucial. Mother Nature has lately been offering broad hints that the Atlantic Coast is not going to be sufficiently rich in oil and gas to change significantly the dimensions of the national shortage. For one thing, the Canadians have been doing a lot of drilling in their segment of the continental shelf, to the north, and the results have been disappointing so far. The more distressing thing about the court's decision is this further demonstration that the country still isn't coming to terms with the limits on its oil and gas resources.
A certain set of attitudes has emerged that can be called the Atlantic state of mind. It is characteristically American, and widespread, but it is most explicit in the region that runs from Washington to the north and east. It is an attitude that vehemently opposes offshore drilling, or the construction of new refineries, or the development of oil ports. But it is also an attitude that bitterly resents rising fuel costs and utility bills. This attitude concedes that the disruptive and sometimes dirty process of producing and refining oil is necessary, but wants it to take place somewhere else. At the same time, it does not see why the northeastern states should pay any more for their fuel than, say, the Southwest.
The rest of the country is now, in fact, subsidizing the imports of home heating oil into this country --most of it into the Atlantic states. It isn't a government subsidy; it's paid by one consumer to another through the refiners and distributors, to equalize fuel costs nationwide. It's permissible as a temporary measure in a very cold winter. But the sections of the country that produce and refine oil have a right to ask how much they are to pay, and for how long, while the fight over environmental standards goes on in the Atlantic states.
The offshore leasing decision was "a stinging victory for our 1,000 miles of shoreline," declared John V. N. Klein, Suffolk County (N.Y.) Executive. ". . . it is obvious that the 'inevitability' of offshore drilling may not be as 'inevitable' as some have suggested." Quite true. But there are choices to be made here. Somewhere, some time, this country is going to have to work out a reliable and rational way of reconciling the benefits of stable fuel prices with the different but even more important benefits of environmental protection. Perhaps it is reasonable for the Atlantic states to demand a higher standard of protection for their coasts and beaches than those now in effect for the Gulf Coast and California, where drilling has been going on for years. But is it fair for the Atlantic states, at the same time, to ask the rest of the country to help pay the high costs of its imported heating oil?