Drilling Offshore, That Old Song Again

Richard Nixon seems an unlikely hero of conservationists, but he was the President who signed into law what Georgetown law professor Richard J. Lazarus calls the Magna Carta of environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act. It was critical bipartisan action to regulate the impact of human activity on the environment; we soon had the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Clean Air Act.

But for the past nearly twenty years, American environmental lawmaking has been in a state of virtual paralysis, stymied by an increasingly deep partisan divide, Mr. Lazarus told members of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation this summer.

The depth of that partisan divide has since grown more obvious. Witness the crowds at Republican rallies chanting “Drill, baby, drill.” See that Presidential candidate John McCain now defers to his running mate Sarah Palin, saying she “knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America.” And she, by her statements so far, would seem to see no limit to offshore drilling by oil companies.

In the midst of this, the longtime ban on offshore drilling in the Atlantic, including New England’s fishery on Georges Bank, is set to expire at month’s end.

The House of Representatives this week passed a bill with a provision inserted to protect Georges Bank, although it would allow offshore drilling elsewhere. The Senate has yet to agree on its version of the legislation.

As they consider their choices on the nation’s energy policy, elected officials take in tens of millions in dollars in campaign donations from oil companies, and collectively they hand out between fifteen and thirty-five billion dollars a year from taxpayers in fossil fuel subsidies.

Unsurprisingly, then, faced with an oil crisis, they argue we consumers have to be practical, and drill offshore — despite the dangers to our environment and our food supply, despite government scientists’ reports that potential benefits would be minimal and many years off.

It is a sad rerun of the debate in Nineteen Seventy Two (when a gallon of gasoline cost thirty-six cents at the pump) and when an editorial in this newspaper noted that “nowadays ‘being practical’ is likely to mean being shortsighted; it’s the business-as-usual phrase for ignoring and over-riding facts.”

The compelling need now, as then, is not for reckless drilling but for energy conservation at the point of consumption. We are still in need of leaders who will drive a revolution in renewable energy with as much vigor as the current President has waged the war on terrorism.