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Energy Bill's Slick Language Could Usher In Offshore Drilling

Benefits would be nil. And risks could be grave: Just ask Santa Barbara about the disastrous gunk onslaught of 1969.

June 25, 2003|Bob Graham and Dianne Feinstein | Bob Graham is a Democratic senator from Florida. Dianne Feinstein is a Democratic senator from California.

The Senate is debating an energy bill that is a bad piece of legislation.

The bill would do nothing to combat the growing problem of global warming, nothing to raise fuel economy standards for light trucks and sport utility vehicles to decrease our dependency on foreign oil, nothing to increase our use of renewable and alternative sources of energy and nothing to prevent another energy crisis like the one on the West Coast caused by the fraud and manipulation of Enron and other greedy corporations.

The basic philosophy behind this bill is to ignore alternative energy issues and drain the nation first -- to make it easier and less expensive to extract oil and gas from publicly owned lands, regardless of environmental costs.

And this bill just gets worse.

It includes a provision that would open the door to offshore oil drilling by requiring a survey of the oil and gas resources under the outer continental shelf. The language in the bill is little more than a thinly veiled attempt to disparage -- and even undermine -- long-standing, bipartisan moratoriums that protect our coastline from offshore drilling.

It is important to put the drilling issue into historical perspective. On Jan. 29, 1969, a Union Oil Co. platform experienced a blowout off the coast of Santa Barbara. Over 11 days, about 200,000 gallons of crude oil spread into an 800-square-mile slick that coated 35 miles of beachfront. Thousands of oil-soaked birds -- along with dolphins and seals and other mammals -- washed up dead on the shore. Gray whales began avoiding the channel that was a route to their breeding ground.

A total of $17.3 million in damages was paid to local residents and boat owners, as well as the state of California, Santa Barbara County and the cities of Santa Barbara and Carpinteria. This tragedy convinced Californians that they were not willing to assume the risks associated with offshore drilling.

Watching what happened, Floridians came to the same realization.

Citizens from both states sent a clear message: The risks to our natural and economic resources posed by drilling were not worth taking.

Eventually, the federal government agreed. In 1982, the Congress passed a moratorium on new offshore leases along the California coast and, soon after, similar restrictions were put in place for coastal areas along New England, Florida and the Pacific Northwest.

This long-established position of the federal government is threatened by provisions in the Senate's current energy bill that require a new survey.

An amendment that would strike that section of the bill -- thus preserving both the drilling moratoriums and the U.S. coastline -- was voted down in the Senate. The House of Representatives, however, has its own version of the bill, and it removed the survey provision -- offering hope that the provision will stay out of the final legislation after the Senate and House versions of the bill are reconciled in negotiations.

The language in the survey provision is little more than a backhanded effort to create political momentum to lift the moratoriums. Over the last 30 years, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service has conducted assessments on the outer continental shelf every five years or so, issuing the latest report in 2000. If the current surveys are so flawed, why order additional surveys by precisely the same agency?

The survey as proposed is not an innocuous study. It would require the use of 3-D seismic technology, which is harmful to marine life, and core sampling, which is suspiciously similar to drilling. On its own, the survey would harm the very coastal resources we want to protect.

In addition, the survey is supposed to identify "impediments" to production of gas and oil. Included on the list of "impediments" are areas currently off-limits to drilling and the rights of states to determine whether drilling is consistent with their own plans.

Proponents of this energy bill claim that we need to reduce reliance on foreign oil, and they define resistance to drilling as something that would keep us dependent.

Although we agree on the need to reduce dependence on foreign oil, we differ -- strongly -- on how best to achieve this.

We don't have to sacrifice the livelihoods of coastal states or threaten Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to reduce oil imports. We must pursue intelligent solutions when it comes to energy policy. Our energy supply is finite, and we must develop policies that reflect that reality before it is too late.

Our No. 1 goal must be to reduce consumption. We must raise fuel economy standards for vehicles, improve conservation efforts and increase our use of renewable and alternative sources of energy.

Until we embrace a comprehensive energy policy that looks to the future of nontraditional energy production and increases fuel efficiency, it is wrong to force coastal states to bear the burden of a shortsighted national energy policy.

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