If John McCain wanted a friendly audience, he chose the wrong place. At a campaign stop in June, about a hundred protestors were waiting for the presumptive Republican presidential candidate in Santa Barbara, California, site of the infamous 1969 oil spill that galvanized the environmental movement. The senator arrived just a week after he and President George W. Bush called for lifting a 27-year-old moratorium on offshore drilling. Both men argued the ban is outdated and counterproductive in a time of soaring oil and gas prices.
In a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, 55 percent of respondents said they approved of drilling in “environmentally important” areas, given the “proper controls.” (As Audubon went to press, Barack Obama said he would reluctantly consider some new offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico if it was part of a plan to make the United States more energy efficient and create alternative fuels.)
The Department of Energy estimates there are 18 billion barrels of oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to be recovered off the U.S. Pacific and Atlantic coasts—in waters extending out from three miles to 200 miles. Republicans and oil industry executives argue that new technologies make drilling a far safer bet than it was nearly four decades ago, when images of oily birds on the California coast prompted a public outcry and eventually led to the ban.
For example, they cite new semi-submersible rigs that have blowout-prevention devices and can move with the motion of the sea—making them far more stable than rigid platforms—and drill for oil tens of thousands of feet below the seabed. New natural gas wells can produce twice as much gas as a typical well could in the 1980s, and the drill holes are smaller. And sophisticated 3D and 4D—time is the fourth dimension—imaging makes finding deposits easier. The threat of spills is also lower, they say, thanks to new tanker construction and advanced cleanup technologies, such as robots that can quickly set up containment booms.
That point is one of many hotly disputed by environmentalists. “Nobody has a bigger stake in this than America’s birds,” says Richard Charter, a consultant for Defenders of Wildlife. He can rattle off a list of recent oil releases off eastern Canada, Louisiana, and Mexico. “The new technology actually causes spills,” he adds, given computer malfunctions, which can escape detection by humans. What’s more, industry critics note that energy companies already have access to all but 20 percent of 89 billion barrels of offshore oil and that drilling in Florida’s waters would occur in the heart of hurricane activity. McCain, who previously supported the offshore ban, says that $4-a-gallon gas prices changed his mind. Yet even the Department of the Interior notes that offshore production “would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.” That’s because no oil or gas could likely be produced before 2017. Says Tony Kreindler at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, “This is a proposed short-term solution for a problem that doesn’t lend itself to short-term solutions.”
Meanwhile, Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger dismissed claims that new nuclear plants, renewable-energy funding, or offshore drilling would provide a quick fix. “Anyone who tells you this would bring down gas prices anytime soon is blowing smoke,” he declared, adding that it’s “shameful” the entire country gets just 2 percent of its energy from renewables while California gets six times that.—Andrew Lawler
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