GEORGES BANK, a shallow area in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts, is the world's richest fishery, estimated to be the source of 15 percent of the entire world's catch of fish. It also sits on top of a small deposit of oil and gas. It has become, as a result, the symbol of the now classic confrontation between the claims of energy production and the need to protect other natural resources.
This particular area is badly suited to the role, for the economic interests at stake are actually quite lopsided. No matter how it is calcuated, the value of the fishery -- which every year yields a catch worth about $1 billion, as well as being the breeding ground for a good portion of the fish caught elsewhere -- is vastly greater than the potential value of the oil, which amounts to about two weeks of U.S. consumption. Nevertheless, the departments of Commerce and Interior, together with the oil industry, chose to make this small field into the indicator of whether the country was serious about solving its energy supply problems. In just three years, the matter has made the trip to federal appeals court five times and to the Supreme Court twice.
This week a settlement was finally reached between the government and the industry on one side and a coalition of fishermen, conservation groups and the state of Massachusetts on the other. The latter relinquished their claim that Interior's 1979 sale of drilling leases on the Bank was illegal. In return, the government agreed to a series of conditions intended to minimize the likehood of damage to the fishery.
For three years' worth of work, remarkably little has been achieved. The government has agreed to do many things it had previously argued made drilling on Georges Bank to expensive to be worthwile. But most issues are still unresolved. For example, the government has agreed to require the use of "best available and safest technology," a prime consideration for the environmentalists. But what is best available technology for, say, the disposal of used drilling fluids? The industry says it is one thing. The environmentalists believe it is another. There is grist there for many more years of the judicial mill.
However much oil is ultimately pumped out of Georges Bank will almost certainly make little difference to the country's energy security. On the other hand, if -- and it is a big if -- drilling were to damage the fishery seriously, the effects on U.S. and world food supplies could be devastating. Like the construction of the Alaska pipeline and other such projects, the risk of possible damage is great enough to demand the use of the best possible technologies and safeguards. The challenge for both sides in this and in the many other production-conservation controversies ahead is to find some way to reach agreement on such conditions without so many years of expensive delay in the courts.