Offshore oil a deceptive & costly distraction

David Kyler
Executive Director
Center for a Sustainable Coast
Saint Simons Island, Georgia

As a person who is paid to think logically in viewing the big picture on public policy, I am troubled by the persistent push for offshore oil production along the East Coast. The proposal to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling is misguided by the fallacies of short-term thinking in facing a long-term problem. Even worse, such an illusory remedy for oil supply will slow America's urgently needed conversion to energy alternatives, some of which are immediately available and quite practical as investment choices.

Three years ago, in defending Georgia's coastline against unwise and risky proposals for offshore oil development, I commented on the same issue. The rationale used then seems even more compelling today.

Consider the highlights.
  • Under our current (outmoded) energy policies, use of oil will increase beyond any possibility of America becoming 'energy independent' - even under the most optimistic estimate of U.S. reserves. In a global oil market, price benefits would also be negligible.

  • Unless unprecedented alternative-energy policy improvements are achieved soon, by the time oil discovered now would be available to consumers, U.S. demand will have increased so much that the added oil sources would be trivial in comparison. There would be little if any net gain in available oil and added threat to environmental quality, while the urgently needed transition to alternatives is further delayed.

  • Combustion of fossil fuels, regardless of supply options and costs, is a losing proposition. The destructive effects of emissions on human health and global atmosphere are simply intolerable. And they will be made more so by the prospects of rapidly rising energy demands in developing countries like China and India.

  • Two opportunities are by far the most promising, both based on proven, existing technology: (1) rapid development of wind, tide, and solar power generation and (2) major improvements in energy efficiency of both buildings and transportation.

  • Although there have been relatively few oil spills at offshore drilling facilities, when pollution occurs, it is environmentally severe and difficult to clean up. Therefore, to safeguard public interest, the consequences and risks must be carefully considered. A human error, accident, equipment failure, natural event or act of terrorism involving an offshore oil well or shipment could produce catastrophic contamination of Georgia's coastline and wildlife. In coastal Georgia, such an event could result in the loss of billions of dollars of income by local businesses that are directly dependent on the quality of our environment - such as outdoor recreation, tourism, and commercial fishing. Moreover, it could take years to recover from such impacts, and damage to the quality of life in some coastal communities could be irreversible.

  • Propagating the misleading promise of offshore oil development will impede the urgently needed conversion to using a cleaner, more practical array of renewable energy resources such as tides, solar power, offshore wind and select biofuels. The longer we delay in making this transition, the more it will cost and the harder it will be for our communities to adjust.

  • Likewise, oil prospecting, regardless of its other consequences, will reduce political momentum for taking practical steps needed for Georgians and other Americans to become more energy efficient. Incentives to reduce energy use are weakened by the false impression that there's plenty more oil just offshore.
Symbolically, promoting more domestic oil exploitation will work to subvert our long-term interests by retarding policy advancement, inhibiting innovation in business and technology, and marginalizing vital environmental concerns.

The greatest boon to both American morale and energy independence is making a commitment to rapid transition to technology that efficiently harnesses renewable sources of power. Inherent in this policy shift is investing money and willpower in sustainable energy research that will enable Georgia and the U.S. to become world leaders in this emerging growth industry.

As long as we continue to put ill-founded faith in polluting power sources, we will be working against our own well-being. Prolonging the age of fossil fuels will only serve to constrain our potential as a country and as a species.

We urgently need the wisdom and conviction to be among the leaders in making the great transformation to a sustainable future. Timing will be crucial to our success, and the search for offshore oil is a reckless distraction that the public cannot afford.

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