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The false promise of off-shore drilling

OK, OK, gasoline is expensive. I spent the weekend outside Pittsburgh and almost felt like I was getting a bargain paying $3.99 a gallon (there's a lower state gas tax south of the border).

Off_shore_oil_rigThe high prices have given Bush 43 a pretext to call for a major relaxation of restrictions put in place when Bush 41 was president on drilling off both the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coastlines. High gas prices have some of the public, as well as the politicians who pander to it, saying that perhaps it's time to start drilling where no man has gone before. After all, it will mean lower gas prices. Right?

Wrong.

But don't take my word for it. Let's hear from Dubya's own Department of Energy, in a report issued by its Energy Information Agency.

"Access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030. Leasing would begin no sooner than 2012, and production would not be expected to start before 2017."

So, that means no help for another nine years. Well, at least then, we'd have a lot more oil, right? Well, actually not. Domestic production would increase only 7 percent by 2030, the agency said.

Yeah, well, even that increase would have to help drive down gas prices, right? Not really.

"Because oil prices are determined on the international market, however, any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant."

Further examination shows that much of the rest of the argument for offshore drilling also doesn't hold up.

There's the claim it would help make America less dependent of foreign oil suppliers. No, we're beyond hope in this regard. The. U.S. has 2 to 3 percent of the world's known oil reserves, but we consume 25 percent of its oil. You do the math.

Then there's the claim that the tree huggers in Washington have cut energy companies off at the knees in their efforts to find more domestic supplies. The Center for American Progress notes in a nifty checklist of myth-busters that the number of drilling permits issued by the federal government jumped by 361 percent between 1999 and 2007. Moreover, energy companies are sitting on some some 4,000 undeveloped oil and natural leases in the Gulf of Mexico alone.

Critics believe the debate over offshore drilling diverts the attention away dealing with real solutions, which involve energy conservation and development of alternative energy supplies.

As the San Jose Mercury News said in an editorial over the weekend:

"We can't drill ourselves out of this mess."

Moreover, it would be a waste of money if we could, the Merc said:

"The billions of dollars it would cost to pull finite supplies of oil from the bottom of the sea instead should be invested in renewable energy sources."

A New York Times editorial last week last week was even more dismissive: 

"This is worse than a dumb idea. It is cruelly misleading. It will make only a modest difference, at best, to prices at the pump, and even then the benefits will be years away. It greatly exaggerates America’s leverage over world oil prices. It is based on dubious statistics. It diverts the public from the tough decisions that need to be made about conservation."

The outcome of this debate - keep looking for more oil or step up the effort to develop alternative energy resources - has particular import for Western New York, as parochial as that may sound.

We're well positioned to be a renewable energy center, particularly if the national government decides that alternative fuels are the way to go. We're already good to go with hydropower. We rank as the 4th windiest urban region the nation, which would make us a significant player in the wind-power industry. The major local chemical companies produce a lot of hydrogen, which could be the basis of a hydrogen industry if someone was to take the initiative. And the planned opening of the Globe Metals plant in Niagara Falls next year could make us a hub for the production of solar panels.

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