America's need for (other people's) oil

This year, the Clinton administration strengthened a moratorium on oil drilling off much of US shores, by extending it from one year to 10. All the waters over the continental shelf of New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and much of California are included in the ban. Many Americans are celebrating this action and would like to see it permanently established.

Last month, presidential hopeful Al Gore, who is trying to reinforce his environmental stature, stepped up the anti-oil message by announcing his administration would go even further and prohibit ocean drilling off Florida and the remainder of California.

Politically, there is little risk in coming down on the demonized oil industry, and the ban has widespread support among legislators and environmentalists alike.

Yet this moratorium is a hollow victory for environmentalism. To simply ban drilling is a predictable and conventional response that fails to deal with the complexities of the issue. Restrictions on domestic drilling will naturally encourage more oil development activities in unregulated areas of the developing world.

There is an endless parade of things that can go wrong in drilling, from headline-grabbers like blowouts, massive oil spills, and disastrous capsizes, down to the routine leakage of drilling mud, a toxic fluid composed of fine clays, various oils, and heavy metals. This liquid "mud" is essential to the drilling program. It is pumped from the drilling rig down the hole and back again, cooling the drill bit and carrying away drilling debris. It is designed to be recirculated in a sealed loop; but leaks are not uncommon.

Even in the best of circumstances, drilling oil is a dirty, noisy, and dangerous business. The environmental risks will be mitigated not by astute voluntary efforts on the part of oil companies (which do not happen), but by strict standards imposed by the government.

A refusal to accommodate drilling in American waters while paying scant attention to the often casual approach to safety and ecological concerns elsewhere is irresponsible.

Americans use more than 25 percent of the world's oil supply, according to the US Department of Energy. Yet much of the environmental degradation that goes along with our oil habit has been concentrated in the oil-rich, cash-poor nations of the developing world.

Every time we Americans fill up with gas, we should imagine what ecological compromises were made somewhere else in getting this stuff out of the ground. Or we could pretend that keeping the oil rigs out of sight makes everything fine. But this is a myopic "green dream" that has no place in honest environmental policy.

Those familiar with life and politics in the developing world understand that sound environmental constraints are either nonexistent or woefully unenforced in most of those countries. Environmental regulations present costly obstacles to production -and to paying off the mountain of national debt those countries face.

And how much do the people of West Africa, South Asia, and Latin America really benefit from the oil booms? Not a lot. The ruling elite have done well, if the limousines, elaborate presidential palaces, and stockpile of sophisticated weapons are any indication. Meanwhile, masses of peasants are packed into city-size shanty towns built around oil ports, where they've flocked for jobs.

Americans use a grossly disproportionate amount of the world's energy resources.

We have a choice. Either we continue to prey on far-away distressed parts of the world, encouraging them to deplete their resources, saddling them with the ecological risks and social consequences that ultimately come from our extravagant ways, or we meet some honest obligation and include our own shores in the search for resources.

To insist on more and more gas, oil, and other petroleum products, and to couple this with the blanket refusal to drill at home, is another manifestation of the "me first" attitude that seems to characterize this nation lately.

To continue to widen highways, construct more shopping malls through the countryside, and rely so heavily upon the automobile (including high-performance, low-efficiency models now popular), making only token and confused efforts to break our habitual energy overindulgence, has a price. A coherent energy policy for this country is long overdue. A moratorium on drilling alone is not a responsible first step.

*Lawrence Davey is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, Mass. He was a commercial diver in the oil industry for 10 years.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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