- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2008

COMMENTARY:

When it comes to energy, we’re supposed to pick between a clean environment and affordable fuel. But what if we could have both?

Fortunately, it’s possible to produce more domestic oil while also keeping our planet livable. The key to doing so begins off the California coast, near Santa Barbara.

It was there that the modern push for a clean environment began almost 40 years ago. An accident on an offshore oil platform spilled some 100,000 barrels of oil. In response, environmentalists created Earth Day, and lawmakers passed the first of many laws preventing deep-sea drilling.


But the bans haven’t prevented oil from washing up on shore. And they never will. Oil was polluting the Santa Barbara area long before humans understood how important the fuel was. As long ago as 1792, explorer George Vancouver sailed up what’s now the California coast and wrote about the oil in the water he passed through.

This past summer Bruce Luyendyk, a professor of marine geophysics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told a town hall meeting that most of that oil is caused by seepage, not by humans. It leaks out of the ocean floor through tiny cracks.

He has done extensive studies off Coal Oil Point near UCSB, and found such seepage pours about 4,200 gallons of oil into the ocean each day. Mr. Luyendyk notes that over a decade twice as much oil seeps out of the ocean floor naturally as was spilled in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground.

Natural gas is bubbling out of the ocean floor as well, making its way into the atmosphere where it may increase global warming without ever being burned by humans. Mr. Luyendyk says about 3 million cubic feet a day of natural gas are being wasted. An average house uses about 250 cubic feet of gas a day.

But here’s where humans have an opportunity to improve the environment while generating more domestic oil. Physicist Bruce Allen belongs to the environmental group SOS California (soscalifornia.org). He says drilling for oil would reduce pressure and cut down on seepage.

Lawmakers should lift their ban on offshore drilling, a ban that prevents exploration in about 85 percent of our coastal waters. That would bring more American oil to market and reduce prices. It also could ease seepage and thus reduce pollution.

Unfortunately, even if Congress acts, hard-core environmentalists will, too. They’re already going to great lengths to block any new drilling.

Every single oil lease granted by the federal government in recent years is being held up by frivolous lawsuits that could prevent any extraction for the next several years. Any potential new leases, whether onshore or offshore, surely will be held up in court, too.

That’s why lawmakers in Washington should do more than simply pass a bill to permit drilling. They should set a reasonable limit on how long lawsuits can delay exploration. Something between 180-360 days for full adjudication should allow us to maintain legal protections without allowing environmentalists to use the courts to thwart the will of the people. Also, all lawsuits against a drilling site should be combined and heard in the District of Columbia Circuit, so lawyers can’t pick their circuits on a case-by-case basis.

Americans can have the best of both worlds: more domestic oil and a clean planet. We just need to do what we’re good at: explore and produce - industriously and carefully.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.