Bush Lifts Ban on Off-Shore Drilling
The environment is once again under attack by the US government, this time in a foolish and futile gesture to appease voters who are justifiably angry about high gas prices. In a move destined to have no effect whatsoever on gasoline prices in the near term, and possibly ever, President Bush just lifted the Executive ban on offshore drilling. This ban was actually imposed by the Presidents’s father. A story from Reuters (via Yahoo!News) by Jeremy Pelofsky and Tom Doggett describes the President’s action as
a largely symbolic move unlikely to have any short-term impact on high gasoline costs.
Of course, off-shore drilling isn’t the only forbidden activity that President Bush has just approved- he also approved drilling of 4400 wells in Wyoming and related energy mining activities on Federal land formerly protected by a large number of environmental regulations. In “Heedless Rush to Oil Shale” by Democratic Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado writes in the Washington Post:
Bush and his fellow oil shale boosters claim that if only Western communities would stand aside, energy companies could begin extracting more than 500 billion barrels of recoverable oil from domestic shale deposits. If only the federal government immediately offered even more public lands for development, the technology to extract oil from rock would suddenly ripen, oil supplies would rise and gas prices would fall.
Since the 19th century, we in the West have been trying to extract oil from the vast oil shale riches that lie under our feet. It is no easy task, and past efforts have failed miserably. Commercial oil shale development would require not only immense financial investments but also an undetermined quantity of (scarce) water from the Colorado River basin and the construction of several multibillion-dollar power plants.
Sometimes it seems that we are getting close to overcoming these barriers. But each time we near a boom, we bust. The last bust, the infamous “Black Sunday” of 1982, left Western communities holding the bill long after the speculators, Beltway boosters and energy companies had taken off.
Senator Salazar goes on to add:
The governors of Wyoming and Colorado, communities and editorial boards across the West agree that the administration’s headlong rush is a terrible idea. Even energy companies, including Chevron, have said we need to proceed more cautiously on oil shale. With more than 30,000 acres of public land at their disposal to conduct research, development and demonstration projects (in addition to 200,000 undeveloped acres of private oil shale lands they own in Colorado and Utah), they already have more land than they can develop in the foreseeable future.
So why is the president hurrying to sell leases for commercial oil shale development in the West’s great landscapes? A fire sale will not lower gas prices. It will not accelerate the development of commercial oil shale technologies.
Senator Salazar continues by saying that he supports the idea of developing technology for removing shale oil in a commercially feasible manner, something I would not be in favor of relative to solar and wind power, but he concludes that Federal land is being given away for no logical reason- not even the oil companies are making any promises about if and when shale oil from the Western US will become a viable commodity.
Returning to the subject of off-shore drilling, I think that this policy change will be considerably more than symbolic to the environment, even if it is only symbolic with regard to our national energy crisis. The construction of drilling platforms and the potential for oil spills, ruined beaches and dead fish and birds may well dwarf the wreck of the Exxon Valdez on March 23. 1989. Let’s hope not, but let’s also remember that the Exxon Valdez spill broke many Federal laws and some prosecution resulted (although, as shown below, the Supreme Court recently protected Exxon from significant financial punishment). The President and his corporate friends should be held to strict environmental standards that they haven’t done well in following, historically: if President Bush’s close friends in the oil industry keep up their poor track record of environmental protection and cause serious damage, they should be prosecuted.
In case some of the details of the Exxon Valdez case may need to be reviewed, here are a few worthwhile quotes and links to the original sources. In a case the went to the Supreme court and was resolved in June of 2008, Adam Liptak of The New York Times reported on June 26, 2008 that (note, you may have to sign up for a free registration to set the Times article)
The Supreme Court on Wednesday reduced what had once been a $5 billion punitive damages award against Exxon Mobil to about $500 million. The ruling essentially concluded a legal saga that started when the Exxon Valdez, a supertanker, struck a reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989.
The spilled oil — somewhere between 11 to 38 million gallons (the figure is elusive because as we learned the hard way, the truth was one of the first casualties of the spill) — created a big mess and broke a lot of federal laws. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Exxon paid $2.5 billion for its cleanup and another $1 billion for penalties. But, it might surprise people who live outside Alaska to learn that taxpayers, not Exxon, paid a majority of that bill. Exxon recouped most of its remaining expense from its insurance companies and from money it paid to settle damages for natural resources — publicly-owned wildlife and lands.
The Exxon Valdez spill, though still one of the largest ever in the U.S., has dropped from the top 50 internationally. However, it is widely considered the number one spill worldwide in terms of damage to the environment. The timing of the spill, the remote and spectacular location, the thousands of miles of rugged and wild shoreline, and the abundance of wildlife in the region combined to make it an environmental disaster well beyond the scope of other spills. Much has been accomplished over the years to prevent another Exxon Valdez-type accident. See the Spill Prevention and Response section of this website.
For more information about the environmental impact, case studies, legal history and science of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, this time from NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration of the US Department of Commerce), see here.
Getting back to Monday’s decision by President Bush and the Reuters story by Pelofsky and Dogget,
With prices at the pump over $4 a gallon, Bush pushed the Democratic-controlled Congress to expand offshore oil and natural gas drilling and give companies access to the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge despite fierce opposition from environmentalists.
Democratic leaders in Congress and environmentalists immediately condemned the move as having have no short-term impact on soaring oil prices.
Of further note, from Reuters:
Democratic White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign quickly condemned the move. “It would merely prolong the failed energy policies we have seen from Washington for 30 years,” spokesman Bill Burton said.
Republican White House contender Sen. John McCain, who reversed his previous opposition to offshore drilling, told reporters that he thought the decision was a “very important signal” and that “states should continue to decide.”
Meanwhile, Japan, Germany, Spain, China and many other countries are cornering the market on fuel efficient cars, plug-in electric hybrid vehicles, solar power installations, wind power installations, and manufacturing plants required for producing solar panels, while the U.S. is left in the position of having many innovative companies but no significant tax support or other incentives to reduce our dependence on oil.
This latest act of poor judgment by the President is typical of his actions, where he has consistently fought and overturned environmental protections and the White House has ordered officials to ignore science and the environment in favor of big business. Some of these orders have come from Vice President Cheney’s office, though he has been stealthy while interfering with the EPA and other agencies. For a 2007 report on the Vice President’s role in hampering EPA efforts, see the Washington Post article “Leaving no Tracks” by Jo Becker and Barton Gellman:
Law and science seemed to be on the side of the fish. Then the vice president stepped in.
First Cheney looked for a way around the law, aides said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge the science protecting the fish, according to a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for the farmers.
Because of Cheney’s intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.
Characteristically, Cheney left no tracks.
It is long overdue for the USA to develop a reasonable and sustainable energy policy that will diminish our dependence of oil, introduce sustainable energy and transportation on a large scale, and do so without damaging or adding threats to our health or environment. It is long overdue to rein in the the current administration’s reign of international policy, environmental, and financial disasters.
Original text copyright © 2008 James K. Bashkin
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