Monday, July 21, 2008

Bush League

IF any of these things happen to you, run, don't walk, to the nearest metaphoric exit:

A guy on a street corner tries to sell you a gold watch.

A "financial adviser" promises you double-digit returns on your investment.

A lame duck president pulls a major policy change out of his hat, the consequences of which will extend far beyond his term of office.

Let's assume you're smart enough to avoid the first two pitfalls and instead focus on No. 3.

President Bush, a half-year short of concluding what might be charitably called a controversial two terms in office, this past week lifted a presidential ban on offshore drilling, saying it would ease pressure on oil prices by increasing domestic production.

"With this action, the executive branch's restrictions on this exploration have been cleared away," Bush said. "This means that the only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress."

At issue are about 19 billion barrels that, the Interior Department says, lie in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Nothing can happen, however, unless Congress chooses not to extend its moratorium, first enacted in 1981.

Bush's plan is brilliant in its simplicity. But for all the wrong reasons.

To call this move political would be an understatement. In one deft sound bite, the president kicked the entire energy crisis/gas price mess into the laps of the Democrats who currently control Congress. At the same time, he gave hope, however false, to Americans chafing under the yoke of soaring gas prices that the solution is just a drilling rig or two away.
There are, however, a few conclusions we can draw from Mr. Bush's actions:

First, we apparently have a president who decries our addiction to oil (See State of the Union message, 2006), then suggests that the way to deal with that addiction is to find more.

Second, it would take at least seven years to even begin drilling in areas currently under the moratorium, and the resulting effect on gas prices could be a decade or more away. According to the Energy Department, a barrel of oil now costs approximately $140. Increased supply would cut that price to an estimated $138.60 to $139.60 a barrel. No one knows how this would affect the price of a gallon of gas for consumers at the pump.

Third, the president fails to acknowledge that the environmental danger in offshore drilling is substantial.

Californians ought to know. They need to look no farther than Santa Barbara. There, on the afternoon of Jan. 29, 1969, a Union Oil Co. platform stationed six miles off the coast of Summerland suffered a blowout.

For 11 days, oil workers struggled to cap the rupture. During that time, 200,000 gallons of crude oil bubbled to the surface and were spread into an 800-square-

mile slick by winds and swells. Incoming tides brought the thick tar to beaches from Rincon Point to Goleta, marring 35 miles of coastline.

Incoming tides brought the corpses of dead seals and dolphins. Oil had clogged the blowholes of the dolphins, causing massive lung hemorrhages.

Animals that ingested the oil were poisoned. In the months that followed, gray whales migrating to their calving and breeding grounds in Baja California avoided the channel, their main route south.

Shorebirds, which feed on sand creatures, fled the area. But diving birds, which must get their nourishment from the waters themselves, became soaked with tar.

"I don't like to call it a disaster," Fred L. Hartley, president of Union Oil Co., said at the time, "because there has been no loss of human life. I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds."

But the worst thing about the Bush plan is that an unrestricted quest for new oil reserves would prematurely halt a revolution in automobile manufacturing that has been too long in coming.

In the next several years, a new generation of cars, from hybrids to electrics, will be hitting the market. A new Prius. A new Honda. A new VW. Cars driven by ethanol, hydrogen, biofuel, clean diesel. Many are scheduled to arrive on the market starting in 2010.

We are on the verge of the greatest revolution in automotive technology since the advent of the internal combustion engine. It's one that will not only change the way we drive, but will be cleaner as well. In the long term, it could even break the undeniable link between oil and terrorism.

But if you want to stop it dead in its tracks, make it the policy of this country to dig for oil no matter what the cost or consequence.

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