2008-06-25 / Editorials


Oil Crisis Poses Serious Threat

Last Wednesday, President George W. Bush proposed to Congress that a federal ban on offshore oil drilling be ended and a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be opened for oil exploration. He also called for approval of the extraction of oil from shale on federal lands and for speeding the approval process for building new refineries.

Concerned environmentalists are shaking their heads in stunned disbelief. Before visions of oil-soaked wildlife and pollutant spewing refineries rouse trepidation, however, we urge a carefully reasoned review of the facts of the matter. Referring to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by its acronym, Anwar, the president pointed out that in recent years, innovative techniques to reach Anwar's oil with virtually no impact on the land or local wildlife have been developed. Oil can be extracted from shale far more economically now than only a few years ago. Offshore drilling techniques have been developed that make such operations more efficient and less risky. Refineries can be and are built to emit far fewer pollutants and odors than had previously been the case.

A concerted effort in all these endeavors can bring down gasoline prices and strengthen the national security, Bush's primary reasons, as stated, for making the proposal. We strongly suggest that Congress take heed. Extraction technology has improved enormously, yet today, in 2008, America produces about as much oil domestically as in the late 1940s. The amount of oil produced domestically in America has been trending down since the 1970s. For the past 30-plus years, we have been finding- and ignoring- more proven reserves. Why are we letting gas prices escalate and making ourselves beholden to oil-producing nations that want to soak us for as much as they can? As for strengthening national security, may we point out, in case it somehow escaped our federal legislators' notice, that many of the nations from which we buy oil- at prices they set- produce and/or harbor individuals whose avowed intention it is to do us harm? This does not seem to us the best possible way to do business with anyone. (We hasten to add that not all the countries from which we import oil are our enemies- we import more oil from Canada than we do from Saudi Arabia- but the more independent we are with respect to oil production, the stronger our economy and those of our allies will be.)

Nor is oil the only issue. The price of gas is largely dependent on refining capacity. Here again, regulations, some, no doubt, conceived with the best intentions, have done more harm than good. So overregulated is the American oil refining industry that the newest refinery in America was built during the presidential administration of Gerald Ford. All efforts since have been lost in a tangle of regulations and directives from various agencies, most of which contradict each other. The issue is plain: we need to drill for oil within our own borders and off our own shores, and we need to make building refineries as economically and environmentally practicable as we can.

Environmentalists fear catastrophic consequences if drilling in the Anwar and offshore is permitted to take place, either due to human error, like the Exxon Valdez oil spill in which a tanker ran aground off Alaska in 1989, or natural elements like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We point out that navigation aids and safeguards for unintentionally errant personnel make tanker grounding catastrophes less likely. As for natural disasters, few oil spills on American shorelines were caused by Hurricane Katrina. Given the technology we now employ, beaches on America's coasts are likely to remain in a state where everyone can enjoy them.

Gaining access to coastal energy deposits, according to a 2007 Department of Energy study, will not add to domestic crude oil and natural gas production before 2030. This leads to two conclusions: one, we had better undertake drilling in oil shale, the Anwar and our other on- and offshore oil reserves and revamp our refinerybuilding policies soon, and two, we had better learn to conserve.

The time to break with the ideas and in some cases, the failed policies of the past has come. Like President Bush, we will need to demonstrate that some of the policies that showed promise in the past are no longer valid. Bush has indicated that he may rescind an executive order regarding offshore drilling that was put in place by his father, George H.W. Bush, when the elder Bush was president. The president's willingness to break with tradition, even one with family ties, demonstrates the serious threat that this oil crisis poses to our national interest.

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