Monday, November 13, 2006

Lame Ducks

The lead editorial of this morning's New York Times serves as a reminder that the current Congress has unfinished business on energy legislation. While I disagree with the way the Times characterizes the pending offshore drilling bills, they are right to point out the major differences between the Senate and House versions, and to question whether changes as sweeping as those contemplated by the House in HR-4761 should be rushed through in a "lame duck" session. Both Houses will undergo a change of leadership and a significant reshuffling of members in the new session, and neither the new Congress nor the industry will thank the outgoing Congress for provisions that could be quickly rescinded next year. Although it never percolated up to a major election issue, our national policy towards offshore oil and gas drilling is indeed due for a major overhaul, but in order for the results to be durable, this should be done openly, following an exhaustive public debate.

As with so many other energy issues, the American public and our leaders are schizophrenic about offshore drilling. We're happy to allow it to proceed off the Texas and Louisiana coastlines and the Cook Inlet of Alaska, but virtually nowhere else. We're pleased to consume the fruits of offshore drilling in the waters of the North Sea, Nigeria, Angola, Brazil and Australia, but not Florida. We benefit from the existing oil wells off California's coast, but we won't tolerate new ones there. Inconsistency is the rule, not the exception. Nor are our perceptions about the risks of offshore drilling guided much by data on its actual environmental performance, or by the tradeoff between these risks and the risk of oil spills from the steadily growing number of oil tankers bringing the imports that our offshore drilling policies help to foster, let alone the environmental risks associated with oil sands recovery or coal liquefaction. The case for an overhaul is clear; the means and timing are all that are in doubt.

In an interview in Saturday's Wall St. Journal, Senator Schumer suggested that in the 110th Congress, drilling reform might be possible in the form of a compromise involving expansion of the allowed drilling zone in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, in exchange for stronger vehicle fuel economy standards. In spite of the practical limitations on CAFE standards that I mentioned last week, that's a promising line of thought, and one I've been pushing for some time with regard to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sen. Schumer, who along with 17 other Democrats voted for the Senate version of drilling reform, S-3711, identified the need for both supply- and demand-based solutions, according oil drilling its legitimate role in enhancing our energy security.

At the same time, it's important to keep in mind the need to balance our risks. Since achieving meaningful energy independence would require decades, our energy security must for now rely heavily on diversification--as it has in the past--and that ought to include diversification against the risks of over-concentration of our energy assets. That's particularly true of our vulnerability to Gulf Coast hurricanes, which climate scientists suggest will grow in intensity, if not necessarily frequency, as a result of climate change. I would feel more secure if revamped offshore drilling regulations opened up some areas that were less prone to storm damage and disruption of the type we've exerienced in two of the last three years.

So the choice is between a radical overhaul of offshore drilling policy in the final moments of the Republican Congress, or a possible compromise including more modest expansion of drilling in the new Democratic Congress. As tempting as the former might be, it could poison the broader energy policy debates that must follow. From my vantage point, having followed these issues for years, if we don't create a genuinely bi-partisan, pragmatic approach to energy, the only certainty will be continued volatility for the industry and for consumers.

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