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10/08/2008 | Coastal oil drilling

Union Tribune Editorial

The time has come for careful development in California waters.

When a majority of Californians signal to pollsters their support for offshore oil drilling, something dramatic is occurring. In this case, it is the price of gasoline lurching toward $5 a gallon. Suddenly, Americans have awakened with a hangover to their perilous reliance on foreign oil, which has escalated alarmingly since the oil shocks of three decades ago.

Since the first Arab embargo in 1973, dependence on imported petroleum has jumped from 25 percent of U.S. consumption to 70 percent. Apart from the far-reaching national security implications of this strategic vulnerability, American consumers now find themselves at the mercy of oligarchic foreign producers who effectively control pump prices in Santee.

No wonder Californians are willing to take another look at coastal oil development, which has been politically verboten since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill jolted the state's environmental consciousness.

Over time, the entire world must wean itself from fossil fuels in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions. This means a variety of alternative energies must be developed – from massive wind farms and solar installations to hydrogen-based processes and biofuels made from algae or other plants that do not consume large amounts of arable land and drive up food costs. And when it comes to greenhouse gases, an urgent shift to nuclear power for electricity generation would eliminate a key contributor to global warming.

But for the next half century or longer, as the transition to noncarbon fuels plays out, the United States will continue to consume petroleum as the lifeblood of its economy and standard of living. No amount of conservation – an important tool in its own right – will eliminate the need for increased production in the near term. So, unless we are willing to become almost totally dependent on oil pumped from the ground in the volatile Middle East and Persian Gulf regions – a very dangerous course – the United States must boost its own output significantly.

This page long has joined the chorus opposed to the mere prospect of any drilling rigs in San Diego County's coastal waters. But circumstances, most notably America's increasing dependence on foreign supplies, have changed. So has the safety record of offshore drilling operations along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts. The risk of another massive oil spill has been greatly reduced by improved technology and federally enforced safety standards.

But what about the extreme visual blight and air pollution produced by towering oil platforms near the shore? Some of the most promising tracts for development are 50 to 200 miles off the California coast. At that distance, beachgoers would never even know the drilling was going on. A reasonable compromise would be to allow careful development in distant coastal waters while continuing to put off limits tracts close to shore where oil platforms would degrade the coastal environment used by humans. Ironically, a very similar approach to offshore oil development is now endorsed not only by John McCain but also Barack Obama. Both presidential contenders have reversed their positions to support increased coastal production.

And while Congress is opening up coastal waters to spur domestic production, it should lift the ban on drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – a vast untapped petroleum supply that is far removed from human activity.

San Diego Union Tribune (US)


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