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Editorial: Offshore Drilling

Oil and water

The Democrats blinked.

Faced with poll numbers showing that most Americans favor an expansion of offshore drilling if it will reduce gasoline prices, presidential nominee Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats who had been opposed to the idea have decided to rethink the issue.

Their motivation in an election year may be blatantly political, but it's never a bad idea to take a fresh look at a policy set years ago under much different circumstances.

Congress first placed a moratorium on offshore drilling in 1981. Nine years later, the first President Bush felt so strongly about protecting America's beaches that he issued an executive order that mirrored the moratorium. In 1998, President Clinton extended the executive order.

But gas was less than $1.40 a gallon in many places in 1981, and less than $1.50 a gallon in 1990. It was still cheap in 1998. Today, people are thrilled that they can finally fill up for less than $4 a gallon, which is still a buck more than they likely paid just a year ago.

That's why we see the poll numbers that have some former foes of offshore drilling reassessing their stances. Among them U.S. Rep. Mark Udall (D., Colo.), nephew of former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and husband of former Sierra Club lawyer Maggie Fox. Of course, Udall says that changing his mind isn't about his tight race for U.S. Senate.

That's good to hear. Because drilling is still a bad idea for some waters off the Outer Continental Shelf. In particular, New Jersey's beaches - which bring millions of tourist dollars to the state each year - shouldn't be placed in ecological jeopardy by allowing oil and gas excavation too close to the Shore.

Given the economic duress faced by many American families trying to cope with higher gasoline prices today, it isn't wrong to consider how to provide them some relief.

It's OK to take a look at expanding offshore drilling. Currently, it's limited mostly to the Gulf of Mexico. But in looking at expansion, one must acknowledge that lifting the moratorium won't have an impact on gasoline prices anytime soon.

New leases couldn't be considered until a year after the moratorium was lifted. Before any drilling began, there would have to be environmental-impact studies of potential sites for drilling and seismic studies by companies to determine where to find oil and gas deposits, followed by government approval of their plans, and finally erection of oil rigs.

All that could take 10 years. Estimates say there's maybe 18 million barrels of oil in currently off-limits U.S. waters, enough to fuel the country for about two years. That'd be that much less that we would have to depend on foreign oil. But it's hardly the answer to America's oil addiction, to use the current President Bush's words.

Bush has lifted the executive order that his father placed on offshore drilling. A coalition of Republican and Democratic senators is pushing a bill to lift the congressional moratorium as well. Before they vote, they need to consider not only the potential environmental consequences of more drilling, but also how little impact it would have on gasoline prices now.

What's good about the coalition's bill is it includes other needed energy measures, including money to develop petroleum-free motor vehicles and tax credits for renewable energy.

After all, the ultimate goal is to wean America off costly, polluting fossil fuels altogether - not just find new places to dig for them.