For the past few weeks, I've watched with fascination as politician after politician have appeared on a beach or a boardwalk and declared their opposition to off-shore drilling. It is a classic example of the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) phenomenon. In New Jersey, opposing off-shore drilling has become a valance issue upon which Democrats and Republicans alike can agree.
Based on the reasons presented by these officials, I'm not convinced that off-shore drilling is such a bad idea, nor am I convinced that it's such a great idea either. I am convinced that politicians on both sides are using the issue to pander to voters either by invoking images of economic and environmental disaster that are exaggerated, or by touting the prospect of complete energy independence.
Opponents of drilling claim that an accidental spill will permanently damage the coastline and devastate the tourism industry for decades. What is the basis for this claim? What is the safety record of off-shore drilling rigs? When was the last off-shore drilling rig spill, and what were the costs of clean up? If the threat of an off-shore spill was credible, then I suspect these same politicians standing on the beaches would beat their chests citing such statistics, rather than wringing their hands over doomsday possibilities.
Proponents of drilling fail to point out the global nature of the oil market and the role of OPEC in artificially setting the price of a barrel of oil. There is no guarantee that a major oil strike off the coast would result in the increased supply that would lower prices. In response to such a find, OPEC nations might decide to cut productions levels, thus maintaining the current level of supply and the current price.
Further inhibiting a considered assessment of this policy is the uncertainty regarding how much oil and natural gas exists off the coasts. Estimates on the amount of the reserves vary widely and many were conducted twenty to thirty years ago. More recent surveys indicate that large pockets of natural gas may exist. Is it enough to justify off-shore drilling? We simply don't know.
We do know that we need to reduce our dependence on oil, foreign sources first and eventually domestic ones. However, unlike other addictions, this is not one that we can quit cold turkey. We need to begin to wean ourselves off oil, and technological advances may eventually do this. In the meantime, we also need to secure reliable sources of domestic oil to reduce our vulnerability to foreign governments and entities. Objectively considering all the available options is the first step we must take in this process.