ORLANDO, Florida -- Suppose the United States did decrease drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, or discontinue it altogether. It's a tempting idea, but the question arises. Then what? What would be our alternatives?
For a nation where oil consumption surged 32 percent between 1970 and 2008 and production declined 40 percent, offshore drilling in the gulf, along with Alaska, represents the new frontier. Some 30,000 to 40,000 rigs in the gulf are drilling deep and pumping oil that comprises more than a third of the nation's domestic supply, more than any other source. The technology employed to drill so deep and at such underwater depths is so cutting-edge it rivals that of space exploration, the industry says.
No one knows just how much oil is beneath the gulf. Forty years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey used seismic data to explore how much oil was there. Today's technology, through exploratory drilling, gives the United States a greater ability to determine how much really is there and where. Some say no matter how much is there, it is an unsustainable resource, but others say another Saudi Arabia could be in the gulf, said Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
"Offshore drilling will continue," said Samuel Thernstrom, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former member of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "The Obama administration's position on drilling has not fundamentally changed, that the president seems to still support expanded offshore drilling accompanied, of course, with more stringent protections for the environment."
The spill in the gulf, which began more than a month ago when a rig exploded and sank, killing 11, has inspired an important national conversation on our dependence on oil and our need for cleaner energy sources. President Barack Obama has banned all new deepwater wells for six months, and he also has established a bipartisan national commission to investigate what caused the spill and recommend ways to improve federal regulations on offshore drilling. But he has not retreated from offshore drilling altogether.
"Because it represents 30 percent of our oil production, the Gulf of Mexico can play an important part in securing our energy future," the president said last month during his weekly radio address. "But we can only pursue offshore oil drilling if we have assurances that a disaster like the BP oil spill will not happen again."
More than 246 million vehicles are on the road today, and the truth is we still are at least 30 years away from electric cars on a scale that would have an impact, said Ebinger, who has served as an energy policy adviser to more than 50 governments. Even replacing a few million cars with electric vehicles is a "long way from getting our dependence on petroleum in the transportation sector ended," he said.
Domestic drilling is important to our national security and economy, generating jobs and tax revenue that, among other things, can be used in environmental preservation projects, Thernstrom said. It also is safer environmentally. Research shows that tankers transporting oil are more prone to accidents and spills than rigs. U.S. safety and environmental standards also are better than in countries such as Nigeria or Venezuela. All this means domestic drilling is less likely to produce spills, he said.
"There is a future where America will use less fossil fuels, and I think there are government policies that can help move us in that direction," Thernstrom said. "But the technologies are not as developed as the environmentalists would like us to believe."
The BP spill is the worst in American history and threatens the environment, seafood and tourism industries, and more across the Gulf Coast. Here in Florida, a Moody's Investors Service report asserted the spill's impact could be worse than that of the global recession, because any damage to the beaches would depress tourism and property values, jeopardizing state and local credit ratings and causing higher borrowing costs.
Hundreds of dead birds already have washed ashore in Louisiana, notes Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. Draper was among the leading opponents of a legislative measure in Florida opening state waters to drilling, which now appears dead. The spill also has killed a California drilling project backed by environmentalists. Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida has announced he will call a special legislative session to discuss a constitutional amendment banning drilling in state waters.
In this environment, a candidate for statewide public office (Crist is running for the U.S. Senate) could probably do no less. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has backed away from a painstakingly forged compromise between environmentalists and the oil industry, and even pro-growth conservative Gov. Bob McDonnell acknowledges that the gulf oil spill has made Virginia's plans to lease offshore tracts more problematic -- even before President Obama issued a moratorium on new leasing. "It's clearly a setback," McDonnell acknowledged. "It's going to take some time to sort out what happened, make the technological and regulatory fixes."
But then, he believes, Virginia -- and the rest of the nation -- must get back up on the scary horse that is now symbolized by BP. He is not alone.
Even Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sens. Mary L. Landrieu and David Vitter don't want offshore drilling to end. This reflects the will of many of their constituents. Take Michael Ballay, manager of the Cypress Cove Marina and Resort in Venice, La., for example. Ballay expects to lose his entire summer's business to the spill, but he believes there is a bigger picture.
"Venice was built on oil," he said. "Ninety percent of the people down here make their living or have relatives who make their living off the oil rigs."
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