Friday, June 20, 2008

Wetlands and Oil Drilling

Steven Pearlstein has a take on offshore drilling in the Post. To sum up:

The frustrating thing about this standoff is that both sides have it half-right. Republicans are right that we need more oil and gas drilling, more refineries and a revival of nuclear power. And Democrats are right in demanding that we finally get serious about conservation, crack down on speculation and market manipulation, and recycle windfall profits into alternative energy sources.

Unfortunately, they're both so thoroughly captured by their interest groups, and so determined to defeat the other's policies, that they haven't noticed we're now so deep in the hole that we have no choice but to do it all: Gas drilling off the coast of Florida and wind farms off the coast of New England. Curbs on speculation and curbs on CO2 emissions. Tax hikes for oil companies and tax breaks for solar.

I often like "a curse on both your houses" thinking (was that Shakespeare?). I don't like NIMBYism, which accounts for much of the opposition to offshore drilling. But I've also a knee-jerk reaction, a sort of romantic feeling that progress is steamrolling everything and wondering why we can't keep some things forever. I guess, contra Pearlstein, Dems are more right because drilling means tapping an expendable resource. If we don't drill now, nothing happens to the oil and gas. Our descendants can someday drill if they think it advisable. While the Democratic proposals are permanent--once we do solar, we can keep doing solar forever.

I would suggest, though, the possibility of "mitigation". The law permits farmers to drain one wetland by mitigating the damage by recreating another wetland. In other words, the law says we're going to always have X million acres of wetland, but it may not always be in the same place. I wonder whether it's possible to take the same approach to drilling. If an oil company exhausts one field, make it clean up its mess and then allow it to drill the same number of acres somewhere else. That approach might provide some flexibility for business and reassure people like me that drilling doesn't mean a permanent, forever, loss of the environment.

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