Domestic oil drilling: Time to open the spigot?

Moderated by Rick Badie

Today’s topic: domestic oil drilling. A policy analyst suggests that domestic drilling could lower consumer gasoline prices and advocates for its expansion. Meanwhile, a Georgia environmentalist says offshore development would endanger our coasts and sensitive protected areas. The third column deals with anonymous spending in political campaigns.

Protect nature, fill gas tanks

By Anastasia Swearingen

For decades, a key argument against the energy industry was that domestic drilling doesn’t affect gas prices. Oil is sold on a world market, the logic went, and the U.S. doesn’t produce enough to move the needle.

The shale oil boom has eviscerated this argument. After decades of declining output, the U.S. eclipsed Saudi Arabia this year to become the world’s largest oil producer. As a result, Americans are paying less at the pump. Gas prices dropped to $3.20 on Oct. 13, according to AAA, representing the lowest Columbus Day gas prices in four years. The Associated Press credits U.S. oil production gains as “the main driver behind the decline in gasoline” prices in America.

Families could save even more money if the federal government wasn’t standing in the way. The domestic drilling boom has occurred primarily on state and private lands. However, America also holds vast energy resources in offshore areas, including in the Atlantic, but the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management prohibits leasing in many of these areas.

The feds ought to open the spigot. A new study by Dr. Timothy Considine at the University of Wyoming finds massive untapped oil and gas potential off the East coast. Producing that oil would help further drive down gas prices.

It would bring other benefits, as well. Considine finds that, by 2035 Georgia, could gain between $416 million and $2.3 billion in added economic value and between $118 million and $659 million in tax revenues. Georgia would also gain between 449 and 2,500 full-time jobs per year.

This promising news hasn’t stopped environmentalists from crying foul. Earlier this year, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management took steps toward possibly leasing acreage off the Atlantic coast as early as 2017, when the current lease plan expires. The Natural Resources Defense Council dubbed the decision a “gateway drug to offshore drilling.”

If seismic testing is indeed a “gateway” to drilling, it’s one we should embrace. Yet environmentalists wax apoplectic. The Sierra Club, for instance, claims that seismic testing would “threaten [the] Atlantic coast.” Meanwhile, Greenpeace — which films its activists boarding offshore oil rigs as a PR stunt — dubs seismic testing (not even drilling) a “domestic threat” to the ocean.

Their claims ring hollow. Offshore development, like any form of energy production including wind and solar, carries environmental risks. Considine took these risks into account, including clean-up costs and environmental damages associated with potential oil spills and additional greenhouse gas emissions. Even so, under every scenario the benefits of exploring the Atlantic far outweigh the costs. At worst, benefits exceed costs by 3 to 1.

Major oil spills are incredibly rare. The ability to clean up after tragic spills has improved immensely. After the 2010 oil spill, activists predicted the Gulf of Mexico would turn into an uninhabitable wasteland. Yet after the spill, BP accepted much of the blame and devoted dollars and man hours to Gulf restoration. Four years after the spill, the Gulf is faring better than expected by most accounts and permanent damage seems less likely than it did in the immediate aftermath.

Though the environmental damage hasn’t been nearly as tragic as environmentalists predicted, it hasn’t stopped activist groups from using the BP spill to push for a complete ban on any offshore drilling even though the threat is minimal compared to potential rewards.

Fortunately, we don’t have to choose between filling up our gas tanks and protecting our environment. We can do both at low cost and low risk. We just have to listen to reason over rhetoric.

Anastasia Swearingen is a senior research analyst at the Environmental Policy Alliance, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education.

Focus on clean power is better strategy

By Karen Grainey

The envy of the nation, Georgia’s vast and beautiful coastal marshlands are almost a third of what remain on the East Coast.

They provide intangible quality-of-life benefits that are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify in monetary terms. The Center for a Sustainable Coast estimates that $2 billion a year and 40,000 jobs are generated by tourism and nature-based businesses dependent on coastal Georgia’s vital natural resources.

The most biologically productive ecosystems on earth, salt marshes provide nursery habitat for important commercial and recreational fisheries which generate $600 million a year in Georgia.

This bounty is being put at risk by the Obama administration’s recent decision to open our coastal waters to seismic testing and sonic cannons — the first step toward offshore dirty fuel development.

Seismic cannon blasting, by the federal government’s own estimates, will injure and kill more than 138,000 marine mammals, including bottlenose dolphins and the endangered North Atlantic right whale. And the biological toll will only grow if drilling moves forward.

Oil and gas drilling is a dirty and risky business. A major oil spill could irreparably damage our treasured salt marshes.

Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, oil can still be found on Alaskan beaches, and the herring fishery in Prince William Sound never recovered. In the Gulf of Mexico, where communities are struggling in the toxic wake of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, scientists expect ecosystem recovery to take decades.

There are also the everyday spills that are a routine cost of business for Big Oil. The National Academy of Sciences reports that during its lifecycle a single well routinely releases up to 2,000 tons of pollution.

The carbon released in finding, extracting, processing, distributing and burning offshore fossil fuels will compound climate impacts — increasing the risk of severe storms, rising seas and other burdens of climate disruption, many of which are already being felt.

The Obama administration has taken steps to tackle the climate crisis, initiating regulations on carbon pollution from power plants, bolstering clean energy, and announcing new efforts to increase climate preparedness and resiliency. However, to preserve and continue that progress, those measures must be accompanied by steps to keep dirty fuel reserves in place.

As the administration develops a plan for offshore development, it should refrain from including new leasing for oil and gas extraction. The environmental and economic concerns that, up until now, have prevented leasing off the Atlantic coast remain valid. Given the state of the climate, they are more justified today.

New energy-development projects should be focused on clean power, such as tapping the region’s large offshore wind potential. Choosing clean energy will benefit coastal communities, tourism economies along the Atlantic coast, and the world’s environment.

The Obama administration needs to get back on track and protect our coasts from drilling or risk opening the door to disaster.

Karen Grainey chairs the Coastal Group of the Georgia Chapter Sierra Club.


Donors should disclose tie-ins

By Ann Ravel

In Georgia’s U.S. Senate race this year, about $34 million has already been spent on ads to sway voters. More than $11 million of that comes from outside groups, many of which do not disclose donors. And that’s just one race. Nationally, estimates are that anonymous outside spending could reach $700 million or more this year.

The groups that run these ads have been flexing their spending muscles earlier in the election cycle, running ads that often frame the debate in a polarizing way. And because the ads don’t identify who’s paying for them except for generically named groups like “Americans for America,” voters are left in the dark about who’s really behind the message. So no one takes responsibility or is held accountable for what the ads say.

All this anonymous spending has alienated Americans of every political stripe. Too many of our fellow citizens have left the town square cynical and frustrated with a political process they no longer think they have a stake in. In a recent poll, 65 percent of respondents felt the current wave of ad spending isn’t just politics as usual. It’s tilting elected officials’ views toward the funders’ interests.

This is a major problem for the long-term health of our democracy. But it has been ignored at the Federal Election Commission, the agency responsible for overseeing the federal campaign finance system. The FEC was created to ensure the integrity of federal elections after Watergate.

The agency is supposed to require disclosure of money given and spent so voters know who is trying to influence the outcome. This transparency is crucial, especially after Supreme Court rulings loosening rules on corporate political spending and limits on individual campaign contributions. For years, however, the FEC has been a cloistered agency, mired in gridlock.

As the FEC’s Vice Chair, I want to change that. The FEC has to do more to promote public confidence and participation in the political process. And it must be open to public concerns and ideas. That’s why I have visited Atlanta and been across the country this fall — to hear from the American people.

We need to hear the views of Georgians from across the political spectrum. Money in politics goes to the government’s ability to represent and serve the public. If you care about jobs, the size of government, or another issue, we are all better off when we have a transparent, competitive political system.

What do you think? Is this the system we have? If it isn’t, what should we do to encourage greater transparency, broader participation, and better competition in our democracy?

Make your voice heard. The future of our democracy depends on it.

Ann Ravel is vice chair of the Federal Election Commission.

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