Yes to offshore oil – but just not now

Save that oil for future generations. Saudi Arabia just took a similar step.

Relief at the pump soon? Hardly. In their pre-election call to lift the ban on offshore oil drilling, President Bush and John McCain are pulling a fast one on frantic car owners. This new ocean crude is years from flowing to the corner gas station. And for sensible reasons it should be.

By the government's own estimates, granting access to the 85 percent of the continental shelf in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf that is now off limits will not bring much production online until 2030.

And who knows if today's sticker shock at $4-plus gasoline will still be around? By then, it's likely many more Americans will be telecommuting, living in cities and riding mass transit, and driving non-oil-based vehicles. The US is on the verge of an energy revolution, forced by the need to deal with climate change and by what are likely to be permanently high oil prices.

Yes, today's pump shock may account for the shift in public mood in favor of offshore drilling (two-thirds of Americans want it and say it will lower prices) – which accounts for politicians trying to lead this panicky parade. (See related story, page 2.)

And certainly, the risk of an oil rig fouling shorelines and killing wildlife has been greatly reduced by highly advanced platform technology since the 1969 rig disaster off Santa Barbara, California.

Many environmentalists now recognize these advances and work with oil firms to find a middle ground in allowing new exploration in existing fields. Look at how the existing rigs in the Gulf survived the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita with minimal spills. Most of the danger from ocean oil spills lies in transport of imported crude.

But any ecoconcerns are minor compared with the big picture on energy. By federal estimates, offshore oil may give only about 10 years of supply at current consumption rates. A nation that consumes a quarter of the world's crude oil is surely grasping for false "independence" from imports, especially when it only commands 3 percent of global petroleum reserves and 5 percent of world population.

In 1977, President Carter began this charade by calling for energy independence (which he termed "the moral equivalent of war"). With the US still importing two-thirds of its oil – and with prospects of that continuing for decades – American leaders should instead call for energy security.

That strategy begins not with consumption as usual, but by reducing oil demand, investing in efficiency, and backing more nonoil energy sources. A Senate bill that would cap greenhouse-gas emissions would by itself cut oil demand enough to enable the US to forgo further ocean drilling.

Energy security also requires a plan for the day when the world runs out of oil – even after using liquefied coal, oil shale, and oil sands. It's been 150 years since crude was discovered at Titusville, Pa. It may take less time than that before it's all used up.

Conserving America's offshore oil for later generations would be both wise and generous. In April, Saudi Arabia's monarch announced such a policy, saying the kingdom would preserve some of its oil wealth for the distant future.

A short-sighted rush for offshore oil, one that won't relieve pump panic anytime soon, is an idea that's running on empty.

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