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A false choice: Ocean conservation vs. energy development

Note: The following article appears in the January/February issue of Trends, a publication of the American Bar Association

A false choice: Ocean conservation vs. energy development
By Angela Howe, Legal Manager, Surfrider Foundation

New offshore drilling will neither meaningfully reduce our gasoline prices or increase our national security—however, it does pose a tremendous risk to the health and safety of our oceans and coastal environment. Most members of Congress understand this truth but succumbed to election year politics and allowed the 27-year moratorium on new drilling to expire. The debate about new offshore drilling has only one sure impact: it distracts the nation from developing an energy policy featuring efficiency and renewable energy, including renewable ocean energy. Fortunately, the new Congress convening in early 2009 will be well positioned to recover from the last Congress’ horrible misstep.

Abolition of the long-standing ban on offshore drilling will not solve our dependency on foreign oil. According to Congress’s own report on the issue, increased offshore production will not reduce reliance on foreign oil. Significant reduction of overall oil imports would require a drastic decline in the demand for domestic oil, particularly in the transportation sector. Congress raised vehicle fuel efficiency standards modestly in 2007, but has largely failed to shift the focus of federal energy policy toward those programs that would make major changes in fuel consumption.

Moreover, contrary to public perception, new drilling will not provide Americans with lower gasoline prices. In 2007, the Department of Energy reported that new offshore drilling would not exhibit any effect on gasoline prices for at least ten years, if ever. Since President Bush took office in 2000, the number of wells in federally-leased areas has increased exponentially, yet gasoline prices doubled during his time in office. Only recently have prices fallen sharply. Oil prices reflect global commodity market pressures, not the small, incremental supply from new wells on or off our shores.

The environmental threats associated with offshore oil and gas production form a nearly endless, tragic list. The most dramatic are the immediate and long-term ecological impacts from a large oil spill. But perhaps the most worrisome are the cumulative impacts on the marine, coastal, and human environments from drilling-related activities. Even if large spills can be avoided, the mere process of drilling harms the environment through damage to fragile coastal wetlands from production-related infrastructure and pipelines; physical damage to benthic marine communities; pollutant emissions, including lead, mercury, and cadmium; release of produced water containing dangerous levels of radioactive materials and carcinogens; and seismic exploration-related noise impacts on marine life.

Even assuming that the purported benefits of new drilling could be realized, a cost-benefit analysis supports the moratorium. Beaches, coastal communities, ports, and fragile bays are economic engines that drive large sectors of the national economy. Domestically, beach-going contributes up to $30 billion annually in economic well-being to Americans. Coastal recreation and fishing add another $10 and $26 billion, respectively. (See Linwood Pendleton at

New offshore oil drilling perpetuates a system that produces more polluting carbon dioxide, fewer jobs in new industries, and the degradation of our oceans. Investment in clean energy will allow the nation to reap benefits in the form of the growth of a new economy, the creation of new jobs, the potential for the United States to become an energy exporter, reduced dependence on oil, and protection of the environment. Who would we rather enrich, the oil companies or our communities?

To drill or not to drill is not the question we should be asking about using the oceans as an energy resource. Rather, we must view our oceans as a finite natural resource and ask how to responsibly protect and continue to use wisely the oceans’ wealth. Opening up offshore drilling not only threatens fisheries, public health, ecological diversity, and recreational opportunities, but it may also supplant opportunities for non-carbon based alternative energy, including the new and potentially beneficial technologies of wave and tidal energy. Because offshore ocean areas are immense resources with the ability to add greatly to the nation’s wealth through emerging clean energy technologies, we must take the long view. We should do the hard, serious work of engaging all stakeholders in coordinated planning and “zoning” of marine areas to find the right mix of protection and use of the oceans. We certainly should not sacrifice the potential for development of clean energy by committing our shores to the last century’s energy interests.

We all lose when political rhetoric and reactionary stop-gap measures get ahead of sound analysis and planning. Now is the time for the country to rededicate itself to a future of alternative energy development and protection of our oceans and coastal environment. It is time for Congress to restore the protection that our coasts have enjoyed for decades. Congress, as soon as you can, take our beaches back from the oil companies.