Local Commentary

Jim Moran

Efforts to lift a 25 year old moratorium on protecting our nation’s shorelines gas drilling heated up this week as consideration of the FY 2008 Interior Appropriations bill progressed on the House floor.

The drilling proponents have worthy goals: to free the U.S. from dependency on foreign sources of natural gas and to bring down home heating costs for the American public. Problem is their proposals won’t get us there — not even part of the way. Instead, they would invite great harm to our coastal environs and in doing so; harm our fishing and tourism industries.

While it is technically feasible to drill for natural gas, there are some fundamental legal and economic questions about whether any drilling offshore would be limited to just natural gas.

Whether its oil or gas, the drilling procedure is the same and involves massive amounts of waste mud containing toxic metals, such as mercury, lead and cadmium. In the Gulf Coast, waste mud is thought to be the leading source of mercury poisoning. Drilling operations discharge hundreds of thousands of gallons of water containing a variety of toxic pollutants including benzene, arsenic, lead naphthalene, zinc and toluene and can contain varying amounts of radioactive material.

Tons of air pollutants are also generated by these operations. A typical exploration well generates some 50 tons of nitrogen oxides, 13 tons of carbon monoxide, 6 tons of sulfur dioxide and 5 tons of carbon monoxide. In addition, drilling can trigger the uncontrolled release of methane hydrates, a green house gas that is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Even putting aside the environmental impact of the drilling process, miles of pipeline and onshore processing and refinery plants could potentially destroy hundreds of miles of wetlands and sensitive coastal habitat – as they have along the Gulf coast. For Virginia’s coastline and those of the 16 number of states along the East and West coasts, it’s a price I believe to be too high.

With regards to the argument that drilling off our shorelines will solve our high natural gas prices, it just isn’t so. It simply takes too long to develop a natural gas field to affect prices in the short term (1-3 years). And given the limited amount of natural gas estimated that could be recovered, it wouldn’t make a dent in U.S. consumption needs.

A 2001 Department of Energy, Energy Information Agency study found that the price of natural gas would be $3.26 per thousand cubic feet in 2020 without drilling and $3.22 per thousand with drilling — 4 cents less. A savings, but a small one – and one of questionable worth when compared with the cost to the environment.

Moreover, the vast majority (80 percent) of the nation’s undiscovered but technically recoverable OCS gas is located in areas that are already open to drilling. We haven’t recovered what is available in areas not covered by the moratorium.

As Tom Whipple can attest to each week in the pages of this paper, we are also long past peak production of our fossil fuel resources. In terms of investment, this nation has gone backwards, investing only 20 percent of what we did in total energy and conservation research during the early 1980s. Boosting domestic production of fossil fuels is not the way to go.

Unfortunately, drilling proposals represent energy policy of the past and would not improve our situation. Fortunately, they still have not succeeded in getting there way in Congress.

The only realistic way to close the energy gap between domestic production and consumption is through the aggressive pursuit of conservation, alternative technologies and cleaner renewable fuels. Improving energy efficiency is the key to minimizing the impact of energy shocks on the overall economy.

The federal government has a critical role to play in this effort. The House and Senate are working on a comprehensive energy bill that sets standards which would reduce consumption and support research yielding greater energy efficiencies and cleaner alternative sources of energy. This is the way of the future and the way Congress should head.