An Age-Old False Choice on Energy

Richard Pombo

4/16/2009 12:01:00 AM - Richard Pombo

Offshore oil and natural gas production will devastate our beaches, wreak havoc on tourism, and destroy sensitive ecosystems. Unlike every other developed nation in the world, the United States cannot safely produce oil and natural gas on its outer continental shelf (OCS) to grow the economy without harming the environment. At least, that’s the age-old drone of opponents to increasing offshore energy production here at home. And, speaking as a cattle rancher, it’s all a load of bull.

Thankfully, according to recent polling data, most Americans know this to be the case, successfully demanding last year that their government remove the bans that prevented offshore energy production for nearly three decades. But not all of our elected leaders seem to have accepted this new reality. Later today, the secretary of the Interior will be in San Francisco – rallying support for the old line of reasoning that says economic gain cannot be achieved without environmental pain.

Interestingly, it’s an event being billed as a forum to help find new ways in which America can better and more efficiently utilize its abundant energy resources offshore to achieve key economic and strategic goals. But actions speak louder than words, and the only pro-energy action we’ve seen out of the new Interior Department to date is delay, delay, delay.

While the secretary is likely to stir up colorful protests in San Francisco today – with help from passionately ignorant environmentalist left - the facts governing our ability to safely and responsibly explore for energy resources offshore are far less controversial. The simple truth? We know there are abundant energy resources far off our coasts. We know how to reach them. And we know how to produce them safely, efficiently and without harming the environment.

Environmental activists are famous for trotting out images of the 1969 Santa Barbara spill, but a lot has changed since offshore energy development began so many years ago. Cutting edge 3-D seismic and 4-D time imaging technologies make it possible find oil and gas more accurately. That means less drilling, less disturbance and more resources. Equipment like storm chokes and new devices like blowout preventers—which would have prevent the Santa Barbara spill — are now standard operating gear.

The billions of dollars invested in new technologies and practices have yielded impressive results: the Interior Department, itself, found that from 1985 to 2001, offshore operators produced seven billion barrels of oil with a spill rate of .001 percent – an infinitesimal quantity compared to the volumes that enter the marine environment through natural seeps in the ocean floor. That’s just not good enough for those who continue to prefer that America keep its abundant energy resources under lock and key, but it should be.

The federal government estimates that more than 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lay ready to be discovered along America’s Outer Continental Shelf—that’s enough energy to replace 50 years worth of imported OPEC oil. And a recent study found that access to currently off-limits offshore energy resources could generate 160,000 jobs and generate $1.7 trillion in local, state and federal revenue. In fact, it may surprise most Californians to learn that our state received $325 million in energy-related revenue last year alone. That total can increase immensely—without damaging the environment—if the secretary of the Interior follows through with offshore energy development.

We all know that any balanced, comprehensive energy strategy must include three important components: greater efficiency of the energy we have, greater access to the energy we need and greater investment in the technology of tomorrow that will allow us to generate more energy from alternative, renewable sources. Developing just a portion of our nation’s massive energy resources offshore could satisfy a number of these requirements, all while creating thousands of new, high-paying jobs for California residents, millions in new state revenue and putting our nation on a serious, sustainable path toward energy security.

The fact is resources fuel our economy. They are the building blocks of our society. Without them we produce nothing. Restricting balanced access to them in America is tantamount to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. But this was the choice the Congress and the federal government made thirty years ago. It was a false choice - based on the notion that America had to choose between economic growth and environmental protection. With today’s technology we can and must have both – in balance - at the same time. The all-or-nothing, lock-it-away, look-but-don’t-touch underpinnings of these policies have resulted in just such a scenario: America’s abundant resources have been kept under lock and key, jobs and economic security has been exported.

No matter how aggressive our efforts to pursue alternatives become, the short to medium-term needs of our nation will require increasing amounts of conventional resources, lest the nation risk an even deeper economic recession than that facing us today. Today, you have an opportunity to help move that important plan along by making your voice heard at the UCSF hearing. And hopefully while you’re at it: reject the false choice between affordable energy and a clean, healthy environment.