Monday, August 18, 2008


A recent Public Policy Institute poll shows that Californians now favor (by a 51-45 percent margin) drilling for oil off the state’s coastline. What many Golden Staters may not realize is that offshore production has been going on for decades. What’s currently verboten is new drilling.

In 2005, for example, state and federal offshore wells accounted for more than 40 million of the 255 million barrels of petroleum produced statewide. By the way, those on-shore wells include some discretely camouflaged rigs in Beverly Hills.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was the event that transformed offshore drilling from a profitable state enterprise (one that contributed significant revenues to Governor Pat Brown’s budgets) into an industrial pariah.

I recall walking along a beach near the University of California campus in Santa Barbara in 1991 and being astounded that my sneakers were thoroughly coated with tar—a remnant, I thought, of the ecological disaster of ’69. In point of fact, those tiny pellets were (and are) the result of natural forces—an oozing up of the black gold that lies untapped beneath the surface.

Obviously Mother Gaia hadn’t gotten the memo that these geological excretions don’t fit her recently cultivated image. Indeed, these mini-tar pits are reminiscent of the vision of nature offered by writers like Jack London—namely, indifference.

Whether nature cares about mankind or not, it’s clear that Californians aren’t indifferent to gasoline at and over four dollars a gallon. The good news is that drilling technology has improved greatly over the last four decades—as indicated by all those rigs in the Gulf of Mexico that withstood hurricanes Katrina and Rita without significant spills.

The billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that lie restively off California’s shores represent a boon both in terms of private economic stimulus and public revenue. (Texas and Alaska both sport significant state surpluses.) Moreover, some experts believe these resources can be accessed within a year of lifting existing moratoria.

Equally significant is the fact that increased American production means fewer dollars going abroad to hostile and unstable regimes in Venezuela and the Middle East.

The ace-in-the-hole for anti-drilling forces is the global warming argument—the assertion that petroleum production and consumption harms the planet via its “carbon footprint.” Columnist Charles Krauthammer, however, provides a cogent ecological response to that objection.

Krauthammer notes that sweeping restrictions on domestic drilling or shale oil development inevitably promote environmentally unfriendly exploration (or devastating biofuel production) in areas like the Niger Delta or the Amazon rainforests. Russians, he observes, won’t be concerned about caribou when they start drilling in the Arctic.

HR-6566, a comprehensive energy bill co-sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, includes measures that expedite deep-water drilling in federal waters off California’s shore. The billion barrels off San Diego’s shoreline, however, remain off limits as long as the state legislature continues to dream about how optimum tire pressure can offset burgeoning oil demand in China and India.

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