Md. Officials Oppose Lifting Offshore Oil Drilling Ban

OCEAN CITY – With the price at the pump steadily rising, the debate over a decades-long moratorium on offshore drilling for oil along the nation’s coastlines, including right here in Maryland, has intensified in recent weeks, but state elected officials are clearly of one mind when it comes to lifting the prohibition.

Last week, President Bush along with GOP presidential candidate John McCain called for ending the moratorium on offshore drilling for oil and natural gas that has been in place for over 80 percent of the nation’s coastline areas since 1990. The Republican leaders contend lifting the offshore drilling ban will allow for more domestic oil and gas production, a concept that has gained momentum in some circles as gasoline inches further over the $4 per gallon mark and imported crude oil nears $130 a barrel.

While lifting the moratorium on drilling for oil and gas within 50 miles of the nation’s coastlines, including Maryland, would not mean offshore oil rigs would suddenly appear off the coast of Ocean City, the debate has raised some concerns locally. A failed attempt at lifting the moratorium last year included a plan to open a vast, three-million-acre area off the coast of Virginia not far from Chincoteague and Assateague Island. The measure failed when the U.S. Senate narrowly voted not to lift the ban.

However, the inclusion of the area off the coast of neighboring Virginia raised concerns locally when the plan was released last year because of the site’s proximity to Ocean City and the mid-Atlantic coastline. The northern edge of the area targeted off the coast of Virginia would have been just 50 miles off the coast of Assateague and Ocean City and detractors worried the possibility of a massive oil and gas drilling presence off the coast nearby could threaten the environment and impact the local commercial and recreational fishing industries.

The proposed three-million-acre site off Virginia would be equal to roughly 4,700 square miles, which would be more than one third the size of the state of Maryland. To put it in local perspective, at around 695 square miles, all of Worcester County could fit in the area targeted off the coast of Virginia seven times. The target area in Virginia would consume much of the Washington Canyon, an area frequented by the local offshore fishing community, as well as much of the Norfolk Canyon to the south.

While the site identified off the coast of Virginia obviously bears close scrutiny from a local standpoint, it is just one of many in coastal areas all over the country that could be affected by lifting the moratorium. Opponents point out it would likely take 10-15 years before oil extracted from offshore sites could actually reach the pump, even if the ban was lifted today, providing little or no relief from the current high gas prices.

Others point out even if offshore sites were tapped today, the net result would not make a dent in the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. Scientists believe the U.S. has less than three percent of the world’s oil reserves. In addition, opponents point out there a vast areas already leased and permitted for oil exploration and extraction on federal property that have not yet been tapped including an estimated 34 million acres of land onshore and another 33 million acres at the outer continental shelf that are already leased for oil drilling.

Nonetheless, lifting the ban on offshore drilling appears to be gaining some momentum with the support of Bush and McCain. On Wednesday, opponents in the Senate were able to fend off a vote on the ban, but the issue is not going away. McCain and his Democratic counterpart Barack Obama are clearly divided on the issue, which has suddenly become a lightning rod in the campaign.

“Tomorrow, I’ll call for lifting the federal moratorium for states that choose to permit exploration,” McCain said last week. “I think that this, and perhaps providing additional incentives for states to permit exploration off their coasts, would be very helpful in the short term in resolving our energy crisis.”

However, Obama remains firmly opposed to lifting the ban on drilling for oil off the nation’s coasts.

“Opening our coastlines to offshore drilling would take at least a decade to produce any oil at all, and the effect on gasoline prices would be negligible at best,” he said this week in a statement. “This is not something that’s going to give consumers short-term relief and it is not a long-term solution to our problems with fossil fuels generally and oil in particular.”

While the issue is clearly divisive on a national level, an informal poll of state lawmakers this week clearly shows a unified opposition to drilling for oil anywhere near the coast of Maryland, starting with Governor Martin O’Malley.

“Governor O’Malley is absolutely opposed to lifting the moratorium on drilling for oil off our coasts,” she said. “The governor supports efforts to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by investing in cleaner, alternative and renewable sources of energy, but does not support lifting the moratorium because of environmental concerns regarding our coastal bays, Chesapeake Bay and our critical areas.”

Of course, state elected officials on the front lines in the Senate and Congress will have the first and best opportunity to defeat the effort to lift the moratorium, and they appear to be of one mind when it comes to the issue. Congressman Wayne Gilchrest said yesterday offshore drilling for domestic oil reserves would not provide any short-term relief from rising prices at the pumps.

“Drilling for oil along the coast would not reduce the price of gas,” he said. “First of all, we wouldn’t get any oil out of the ground for five or six years. Second of all, even with the untapped oil off our coast and inland and in Alaska, the U.S. has less than three percent of the world’s oil reserves.”

Gilchrest said the quickest route for relief at the pumps is for Americans to cut back on consumption.

“The increase in the cost is directly related to the huge demand,” he said. “The supply of oil is diminishing. It’s a finite resource, while the demand is steadily going up. It’s a simply supply and demand issue. We’re using it faster than any other nation in the world and we’re using it in an extremely wasteful fashion.”

Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski this week agreed with the concept of weaning the nation off of its dependence of foreign oil, but remains strongly opposed to opening areas off the coast for exploration.

“I agree that we must do much more to become energy independent, yet I disagree with the proposal to drill for oil off our coasts,” she said. “I believe there are many other ways to lower energy costs and lessen dependence of foreign oil. I support an energy plan that increases domestic energy supplies in a responsible manner. Backtracking on environmental standards will only cause more problems in the future.”

Mikulski’s partner in the Senate, Ben Cardin, agreed there are better alternatives including tapping the vast areas already leased and permitted for exploration in the U.S.

“I believe that oil companies should concentrate on increasing production and drilling on currently available lands in an environmentally sound way,” he said this week. “Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or new offshore locations will do little to alter the global market price of petroleum, but it could do irreversible harm to our environment.”

Gilchrest said lifting the ban on offshore drilling is not the answer to rising gas prices and called on his colleagues to continue to explore the alternatives.

“The only thing we can do to bring down the price is to start being conservative and looking at alternatives,” he said. “We have the technology right now to give automobiles 60 miles to the gallon. We should have invested 50 years ago in mass transit.”

Gilchrest painted a grim picture of the future if Americans don’t change their consumption habits.

“By the end of the 21st century, the age of oil will be over,” he said. “Our grandchildren and great grandchildren will live in a much different world and I only hope they won’t have to bear the brunt of our irresponsibility.”