President Lifts Offshore Drilling Ban

President Bush this week lifted a decades-long moratorium on offshore drilling
for oil along the nation’s coastlines including right here in Maryland, the
move was quickly viewed by many as merely a symbolic gesture to address rising
gas prices and the U.S. dependence of foreign oil, but the measure is being
monitored closely in a resort area dependent on a clean, healthy ocean

Bush on Monday lifted an
executive order banning offshore drilling for oil and natural gas that has been
in place for over 80 percent of the nation’s coastline areas since 1990
ironically put in place by the president’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush
when he was president. Bush contends 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 prices continue to nudge past the $4 per
gallon mark.

However, Bush’s lifting
of the moratorium is viewed by many as being largely symbolic. Opening coastal
areas around the country to offshore drilling would require action from
Congress, which is clearly divided on the issue, and experts say even if the
ban was lifted today, it would likely be 10 years or more before a single drop
of oil is extracted from the potential reserves under the ocean floor.

Nonetheless, Bush’s
lifting of the ban bears monitoring in coastal communities all over the country
including Ocean City. A bill currently circulating in
the U.S. Senate would reopen all areas more than 50 miles from the shore along
the nation’s coastline including Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.
Under the legislation, the individual states would have the right to veto
drilling off their shores, but the states that cooperate would get a share of
the potentially huge licensing fees paid by private oil companies.

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 at the time, but with Bush’s
action this week and an increased concern over rising gas prices and the
dependence on foreign oil, it appears the attempt to at least explore the
opportunity for drilling for oil and gas off the coast is gaining new momentum.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said this week local officials are keeping a close
eye on the debate, and although it appears unlikely the Maryland coast would be targeted for
exploration, the issue merits some concern.

“We’re certainly opposed
to anything off the coast of Ocean City that
could have a detrimental effect on the ocean, the environment, and everything
we’re based around,” he said. “We’re very cognizant of the potential for
offshore drilling someday off our coast and we’re keeping a close eye on the

Meehan stopped short of
dismissing the concept entirely, saying anything proposed would have to be
monitored closely.

“The things on
everybody’s mind are rising gas prices and conservation,” he said. “We’re going
to have to make changes in the way we do things, but opening offshore areas to
drilling does not appear to be a short-term solution,” he said. “That being
said, I’m not really sure how it would affect the Atlantic coastal areas.”

Critics point out there
are currently 68 million acres of federal land off the nation’s coastlines
already under lease by the big oil companies for exploration and drilling and
only a small percentage is currently under production. Critics of lifting the
offshore drilling ban believe those areas already under lease should be
explored and utilized before any new areas off the coasts are opened up.

“Instead of creating
solutions to help struggling families, big oil companies come to Congress
asking for more land and more handouts,” said Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski
this week. “Enough is enough. The American public needs relief- real solutions
to what we are going to do to help them as they struggle with rising fuel costs.”

Closer to home,
environmental groups such as the Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) are monitoring
the debate and remain clearly opposed to opening new areas off the coast to oil
and gas drilling.

ACT Executive Director
and Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips emphasized her agency’s opposition to the plan.

“We’re obviously
opposed,” she said. “We acknowledge the time is right to explore alternatives,
but this clearly isn’t the answer. Even if leases were granted right now, it
will take 10 years or more before a drop of oil comes ashore for consumption.”

Phillips related stories
from her time working on the West Coast about the dangers of offshore drilling
for oil and gas there.

“Let’s say we did have
it offshore. Obviously, there is always a chance for a catastrophic spill, but
these things create huge environmental problems in their day to day use,” she
said. “Take a look at some of the areas in California that have drilling off their
coasts. Globs of oil on the beach and oil-stained sand has become a way of life.”