After reading an article in the Wall Street Journal with the surprising news of environmentalists supporting offshore drilling, I decided to explore the topic further. After all, that would be pretty big news, especially in this season of $4/gallon gasoline. (Though I was one of the fortunate ones who got gas for $2.99/gal yesterday during a 4-hour special sale at the gas station across the street from my workplace.)
What conclusion you draw will probably depend on which headline you read. There is Santa Barbara learns to live with offshore drilling in MarketWatch – which is part of the Wall Street Digital Network and could be expected to have a pro-business approach. It reports mixed feelings among the residents: “All are wary of spills, but some say it could prove to be a positive in the long run.” The Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, reports that Santa Barbara fumes over McCain drilling plan. Like the WSJ article, it acknowledges (briefly) that recent poll results show support for offshore drilling, but focuses primarily on opposition to it.
After reviewing several more articles, my impression is that those emphasizing the opposition point to history, especially the terrible 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara that gave impetus to the modern environmental movement. Protesters argue that allowing offshore drilling is inviting a repeat of such disasters. Those who support the drilling point to improved technology that has resulted in “a 99.999% safety record,” and the fact that a relatively small portion of the oil that makes its way into the ocean is a result of drilling. (Natural seeps produce more, and that biggest sources are runoff from dry land and routine ship maintenance.)
I find the latter arguments, backed up by current facts and figures, considerably more convincing than those that highlight fears based on the past and cynicism about the motives of those who encourage drilling. One article (also from the LA Times) suggests that McCain’s support of drilling is based on political calculation, figuring he can win Midwest voters with hopes of lower gas prices while giving up in California where he probably never had a good chance anyway. He may have made such a calculation – but whether he has or not is irrelevant to whether increased drilling is a good idea.
What I find somewhat more persuasive are the arguments of fishermen who point to other problems that result from drilling besides the potential for spills. Fishing grounds and related facilities are displaced by oil rigs and their related facilities, seismic testing kills small fish and scares away larger fish, and fish around oil rigs are found to be contaminated by mercury and heavy metals.
The article I found most interesting deals with the natural oil seeps mentioned previously, and tells of a group aiming to increase support for a technological solution that will both help the environment and recover oil that would otherwise simply seep into the ocean and wash up on beaches. Safely extracting the oil would also provide funding for conversion to alternative energy sources. The group is a non-profit organization called SOS California (Stop Oil Seeps California) and is “dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of natural gas and oil seep pollution on our ocean, our beaches, and our air quality, through education and awareness.”
I don’t expect to pay $2.99/gallon anytime again soon, regardless of whether drilling plans supported by McCain go forward. But I do hope SOS California and any similar efforts can garner sufficient support to accomplish their very worthwhile goals.