Streetcar Line

Produce More Domestic Energy, Now!

The NIMBYites have it wrong -- drill offshore.

By 5.10.06

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With higher gasoline prices a continuing political concern, it's high time somebody placed the blame where it belongs -- and high time that somebody recognizes that while there are few short-term solutions that can immediately alleviate the cash crunch, it's worth realizing that today's long-term solutions will one day make a difference in some future year's short-term. In other words, even long-term plans do, at some point, bear results that at some point seem immediate.

Today's problems would be better at the not-inconsequential margins, for example, if drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge had been approved 25 years ago when that state's Sen. Ted Stevens first brought it up.

Congress and various bureaucracies have messed up this nation's energy policies for decades -- and it is the liberals, which means almost all Democrats, who have been responsible for the mess. One big problem, for instance, is not with the oil supply but with refining capacity. No new refineries have been built in three decades. Why? Because they aren't profitable. Why? Because environmental regs have skewed the market too much, at least until last year's Energy Bill (a mix of good policies and horrible ones) provided new incentives for refineries that soon should catalyze investment in new plants.

Meanwhile, home heating and cooling prices are much higher, and the environment itself much worse off, because the eco-lobby so successfully poisoned the atmospherics of the debate about nuclear power plants. But nuclear energy emits no greenhouse gases, so environmentalists who opposed the nukes are also responsible for the burning of fossil fuels that poison the air they so claim to want to clean up.

And so on and so forth, with domestic production of usable energy of many sorts being hobbled by public policy-makers who haven't seemed to give a hoot about the growing problems associated with American dependence on foreign energy sources.

TODAY, LET'S FOCUS ON THE KEY problem of a lack of domestic production of oil and gas. National public policy in this regard has been horrendously negligent -- and the Alaskan refuge drilling ban is only a small part of the problem.

The bigger problem is the overall moratorium on all drilling off U.S. coasts except those in the central and western Gulf of Mexico. Vast supplies of oil and natural gas lie off of Alaska, California, Florida, Virginia, and (I'm told) probably New Jersey and the Carolinas as well. But they lie untapped, forbidden from use by the utterly counterproductive agitation by environmentalists and tourism boosters with overly heightened sensitivities but too little sense (and too little knowledge).

For instance, if it is oil spills or leakage that they worry about, their high-energy-using states risk far less ecological damage if they drill offshore wells and use pipelines than if they bring in the oil on foreign tankers. Tankers are much, much more dangerous, as we all were reminded when the Exxon Valdez fouled a key part of Alaska's coastline.

From 1990 to 1999, the average annual spillage or seepage from pipelines and oil platforms in North America was 2.06 thousand tons. From tankers, spills alone amounted to 5.3 thousand tons, while "operational discharges" added another 220 tons of fuel into our waters.

These numbers, by the way, come from the National Academy of Sciences, not from some energy lobby.

Meanwhile, Floridians especially are worried that their tourists' sightlines will somehow be affected by oil rigs. But most drilling is done way offshore, far from any beachgoer's view. Why ban drilling 150 miles offshore, while risking a major spill from tankers that frequent the state's ports?

Even worse, Florida's misplaced squeamishness has gone to such lengths that its powerful congressional delegation has long refused to allow any other states to opt out of the moratorium, for fear of some nonexistent slippery slope that might, years hence, lead to oil derricks within sight of Sanibel Island or Miami Beach, or something like that. But why should a ban on drilling designed to protect Florida keep Virginians from choosing to profit from natural gas produced in federal waters off Virginia shores?

For the cause of American energy independence, which is necessary both for lower prices and for national security reasons, the moratorium on offshore drilling should be narrowed so as to apply only within, say, 50 or 75 miles of anybody's coastline, and it should allow each state to choose for itself whether to lend its infrastructure to drilling in its adjacent federal waters.

Not only should the moratorium be lifted, but states should actually be given incentives to let drilling commence and/or continue and expand.

That's where various pieces of pending legislation come in. Senators John Warner (R-Va.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) have a bill that would let states opt out of the moratorium, plus let states get a greater share of the royalties from the drilling. Senators Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) want to allow drilling in a large part of the so-called "Lease Area 181," which is off the Florida and Alabama coasts. And Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana (D), along with the entire Louisiana delegation (and, except for the Floridians, supported strongly by other Gulf Coast senators, especially Alabama's Jeff Sessions), are pushing various versions of bills that would go a long way to making safe drilling worth the while of states -- and thus give greater incentives for states to opt out of the moratorium and for states already out of the moratorium to be more aggressive about attracting energy businesses.

THERE'S A SERIOUS ELEMENT of fairness involved with the proposals from Landrieu et al. Under current law, the federal government shares 50 percent of all royalties from onshore exploration on federal lands with the states within whose boundaries the lands lie. But for drilling in federal waters, the feds share not a penny of the royalties with the states off whose shores the drilling is performed -- even though those states bear the brunt, in terms of infrastructure and environmental risks (little though they are), of the drilling. In most states the eco-risks are tiny; in Louisiana, however, which has coastal wetlands covering the entire southern third of the state, the pipelines (and canals through which they are laid) have played a big role in the coastal erosion that so plagues the Bayou State and that now leaves it so much more unprotected from hurricane surges. (Coastal wetlands can act as a sponge that absorbs hurricane surges; the less marshland, the worse the damage to the remaining "dry" land from each storm.)

Sen. Landrieu's legislation would provide for the same 50/50 revenue sharing for coastal states that the inland states receive.

As well it should. There is no good reason for onshore states to reap a bonanza while Gulf states get no benefit whatsoever from drilling. Moreover, with Gulf states trying to recover from Katrina and other hurricanes, any revenues shared with them could be used for wetland restoration, levee rebuilding, and other projects that will help them recover from the recent storms and protect themselves better from the next ones.

The Landrieu proposals are no mere liberal giveaways, by the way. They are strongly supported by Alabama's conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions, and no less than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (who has no real dog in the fight) has come out strongly in favor of sharing the offshore revenues -- especially for Louisiana, of which he recently wrote that it is particularly true that production off its shores "puts an infinitely greater burden on it than energy produced from other federal territory puts on any other state."

And as it was put by Sen. Landrieu -- sounding for all the world like a free-market, energy-bullish conservative -- "The nation has a need for more oil and gas, and we are the nation's only Energy Coast. We've got to increase our supply, not decrease it; and we also have to conserve more. But the host states along the Gulf Coast are the ones who make offshore energy possible. So particularly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we need to use our fair share of these royalties to build better, stronger levees and to restore our eroding wetlands -- the first line of defense against oncoming storms. This is literally a life-or-death situation for the people of my state, and it is imperative that this new source of revenue come to help us in the long term rebuilding efforts of the Gulf Coast."

For reasons of compassion, sovereignty, national security, and economics, more drilling is a vital necessity. For Congress to fail to act, especially in the light of gasoline at more than $3 per gallon and rising, would be unconscionable.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.