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Editorial: Drilling debate drifts offshore

For residents of North Carolina and other Atlantic Coast states, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has provided a largely symbolic ó and distantly safe ó vehicle for debate about future oil and gas exploration in the United States.
Proponents of tapping ANWR could comfortably argue that drilling could be done in an environmentally sound manner, since the caribou weren’t in their own back yard, and if a leak developed, it would be confined to a speck of real estate in one of the nation’s most remote landscapes. Opponents could hype environmental concerns while dismissing ANWR’s reserves ó estimated at 10 billion barrels by the U.S. Department of Energy ó as too little to make a significant dent in America’s thirst for oil.
But the reinvigorated debate over lifting a 1981 moratorium that stopped new drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf is another matter. This puts the issue squarely in North Carolina’s back yard, and it does so in an election year when Americans worried about energy prices and supplies are willing to contemplate scenarios that might quickly have been dismissed 20 or so years ago, when the moratium had largely bipartisan support.
In urging Congress to lift the moratorium, President Bush noted that the offshore reserves hold at least 18 billion barrels of oil, with some estimates putting the amount at 21 billion barrels. That’s significantly greater than the amount buried under the Alaskan wilderness, but it also comes with a potentially high cost for beaches that compromise some of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations as well as some of its priciest real estate. Balancing the desire for cheaper fuel and energy security against the desire to preserve the state’s tourist industry and protect environmentally sensitive waters is no easy matter, even for senators who claim the same side of the political aisle. Although reactions to Bush’s proposal fall largely along party lines, those lines can twist when a proposal makes waves back home. While Sen. Richard Burr favors lifting the moratorium (as he has in previous years), Sen. Elizabeth Dole said she won’t support drilling off North Carolina’s coast because of concerns about the tourism industry as well as the environment.
In some ways, shifting the drilling debate from Alaska’s wilderness to America’s coastal waters could have a healthy effect if it compels us to more carefully weigh the tradeoffs and costs involved in any decision, and if it encourages longer-term thinking about alternative sources of energy. Critics of expanded drilling are correct that oil is a finite resource, and we can’t drill away our dependency on it. Even if we started offshore drilling today, it would take years for new oil supplies to come online. But oil and natural gas are going to be a vital part of our economy and our mobile society for decades to come. The more of our energy needs we can supply for ourselves, the more stability we can bring to prices and supplies and the less vulnerable we are to manipulation by external suppliers. That doesn’t mean it’s time to lift the ban, but it is time to have a more honest conversation about the pros and cons of doing so.

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