Outside editorial: Oil drilling: A nasty national compulsion

Posted: Sunday, April 04, 2010

President Obama's decision to have Interior Secretary Ken Salazar open vast new areas of federal ocean waters to offshore oil drilling is no surprise. In his State of the Union address, the president explained that his vision for a clean energy future included offshore drilling, nuclear power and clean coal. Unfortunately, that's like advocating a healthy diet based on fast-food snacking, amphetamines and low-tar cigarettes.

If the arguments you hear in the coming days for expanded drilling sound familiar, it's because they've been repeated for generations. We've been hearing promises about safer drilling technologies since before Union Oil began drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel. And if you don't remember what happened that time, you should. Soon after the wells were bored, one of them blew out in January 1969, causing a massive oil slick that slimed beaches and killed birds, fish and marine mammals. The resulting catastrophe helped spark the modern environmental movement.

The president has promised no new drilling off the West Coast, and it's no wonder. Opposition was unified and vociferous during Salazar's public hearing on offshore energy development in San Francisco in April 2009. More than 500 people - including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Gov. Ted Kulongoski of Oregon, California's lieutenant governor and four House members - testified and rallied for clean energy and against any new oil drilling.

Boxer noted that the coast was a treasure and a huge economic asset "just as is," generating $24 billion a year and 390,000 jobs.

Still, in the new Department of Interior announcement, one can hear echoes of President Reagan's Interior secretary, Don Hodel, who warned us in the 1980s that if we didn't expand offshore drilling, we'd be "putting ourselves at the tender mercies of OPEC."

We did expand offshore drilling then, not off the stunning redwood coastline of Mendocino, Calif., as Hodel wanted, but where the oil industry knew most of the oil and gas actually was and is: in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We even created a royalty moratorium for the oil companies that went after those huge deep-water fields.

But offshore drilling has done little to wean us from Middle Eastern oil. And with less than 5 percent of our domestic oil located offshore, more ocean drilling won't help now either.

The only real way to quit relying on foreign oil is to wean ourselves from oil, and that's something our leaders are unlikely to fully embrace until we've tapped that last reserve of sweet crude.

Nor is it likely that oil-friendly politicians in Louisiana, Alaska and Virginia, where new drilling will take place under the Obama plan, are going to embrace administration-backed climate legislation that recognizes drilling as a temporary bridge to a post-fossil-fuel world.

The only real difference in the drilling debate from 30 years ago is that back then the issue was energy versus marine pollution. Today we know it's even more urgent. Oil, used as directed, overheats the planet.

Plus, any new platform drilled is a structural commitment to at least 30 more years of fossil fuel extraction - assuming it's not taken out by a big storm like the jack-up rig I saw washed onto the beach at Alabama's Dauphin Island after Hurricane Katrina.

I've visited offshore oil rigs in the Santa Barbara Channel and the Gulf of Mexico and was impressed by the oil patch workers I met there. The innovative technologies they use for extracting ever more inaccessible reserves of oil and gas are also impressive.

But now we need to direct that can-do spirit of innovation to large-scale carbon-free energy systems, including photovoltaics, wind turbines, biomass, hydrogen fuel cells and marine tidal, wave, current and thermal energy. The difficulties of producing energy with those technologies will make today's drilling challenges seem simple.

I respect the roughnecks and roustabouts I've met who continue to practice a dangerous and challenging craft, and the contribution they've made to our nation's maritime history. But I believe it's time for them to exit the energy stage. Apparently the president does not.

• David Helvarg is president of the Blue Frontier Campaign (www.bluefront.org), a marine conservation group. His new book, "Saved by the Sea - A Love Story with Fish," will be published in May by St. Martin's Press. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.



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