Last July, after 86 painstaking days of press conferences and pressure tests, BP sealed the rogue well that had dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. By day 86, lasting damage had already been done; countless fisherman and shrimpers were out of work, incalculable harm afflicted one of the nation’s most fragile ecosystems and unknown human health consequences loomed large. Yet slowly, the alarming deepwater drilling headlines receded to the back pages of the paper, then disappeared from memory for many altogether.
The amnesia of one of the most devastating environmental catastrophes in decades became a lot more dangerous last Thursday when the House passed the “Restarting American Offshore Leasing Now Act,” one of the more misguided pieces of legislation to pass in recent memory. The bill, which passed 266 to 149 (with 33 Democrats on board), requires the Secretary of the Interior to approve offshore lease applications that would expedite oil production and, in theory, relieve consumers from rising gas prices that have reached an average of $3.965 nationwide.
This bill undoubtedly garnered the necessary votes because lawmakers want to seem adept at addressing problems that are affecting constituents today. The fear of being branded a “Beltway Insider” is too great, the cost of losing a re-election campaign is too high for too many in Congress to take less popular but more powerful stands.
Unfortunately, while lawmakers may like the way their stance on this bill looks on their voting record come the 2012 election cycle, many experts agree that drilling offshore will not lower gas prices. The offshore areas that are in play (parts of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico) are new frontiers in oil exploration and it remains unclear how much yield will come from drilling there. Even in the “best” case scenario, it will likely be almost a decade before enough oil is pumped for U.S. refiners.
Moreover, it is unconscionable for lawmakers to endorse offshore drilling in light of their own lackluster response to last year’s spill. In January, the National Oil Spill Commission released a 300-page document of recommendations to Congress that has been largely ignored. The liability cap for companies responsible for a spill has not changed, fewer than half of Gulf residents who filed claims last year have been compensated and the “fail safe” technology that is far from fail safe is still relied upon to prevent spills. This, while tar balls continue to wash up on beaches along the region’s shoreline.
And perhaps most importantly, the distraction of offshore drilling diverts attention from constructing a viable energy policy that should be at the forefront of the national agenda. Congress needs to start looking beyond the perpetually fluctuating prices at the pump and begin pushing for legislation that pushes the energy envelope.
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