Drill Better Baby!

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On Wednesday President Obama stole Sarah Palin's football when he spoke of a plan to open 167 million square miles of offshore territory to oil drilling. This spring, when gas prices inevitably rise, Sarah and the Republicans will not be able to demand that we "Drill, Baby, Drill," because Barack already has. In this at least, opening offshore oil was a smooth preemptive move. But if that's all it accomplishes it will have been a waste--there's no way this will lower gas prices, or make the U.S. more energy secure in the long term. Politically, offering up the coast has to be a bargaining chip to get climate change legislation--whether it brings some balky legislators to the table, or produces some income from royalties that makes the cost of climate legislation more palatable.

While many environmentalists are enraged by Obama's move, I think THEY should steal Obama's football to get even bigger gains for the environment.

Personally, I can't get too upset about the possibility of drilling off the coasts. While I love walks on unspoiled beaches, I don't believe we in the U.S. have any special right to them given our current consumption of petroleum. We have less than 3 percent of the world's oil reserves, and we use 25 percent of the daily production. All that oil comes from someone else's beach: Angola, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Chad, Russia, Kazakhstan-- places without our environmental protections, rule of law, or human rights record. In my mind, keeping the coasts off limits here without dramatically curtailing our consumption inevitably leads to drilling more wells in Nigerian villages, soon to be followed by spills, poverty, violence, and worse. If an oil company spills even a small amount of oil off the coast of Virginia the active citizens of the Commonwealth will force them to account for their actions and pay compensation.

(Wondering how frequent offshore drilling spills are? The Norwegians keep a database named SINTEF of all offshore blowouts from oil and gas exploration for the U.S., and the Norwegian and U.K. North Sea, showing that they're less frequent than they once were. Google that analysis, or go here to see some of the worst blowouts in history.)

The environmental community should give up its usual opposition to federal money for drilling research and instead try to change drilling itself.  First, get more funding for research into how to safely get more oil and gas out of old wells in parts of the country that are already heavily drilled. One in six barrels of oil produced in the U.S. is from such old wells, but the feds spend only $1 million a year investigating how to increase that yield.  For comparison, we spent more than $1 billion on gasoline yesterday.

Another opportunity to change the way drilling is done would be to put more money into figuring out how to extract unconventional natural gas with less water, safer drilling muds, and better fracking fluids. Instead of choking off funding, perhaps we should embark on a five-year plan with the industry to substantially reduce the environmental impact of such drilling. At the moment, such initiatives receive very little funding. (Though the EPA also has a program.)

Cynics are likely to argue that investing in oil and gas technology helps the oil industry more than the environment. But with many years of fossil fuel dependency ahead of us, we need to have higher expectations of the industry. Investing in the right kind of research is one way to establish those expectations.

Plus, the strongest argument against coal, nuclear power, and LNG terminals has been the discovery of massive amounts of "unconventional" natural gas in the U.S. over the last ten years. What made producing that gas possible? A modest $185 million investment in unconventional gas technology in the early 1980's, which was then modified by the gas industry itself over the years.  But simply drilling for that gas will have huge environmental effects unless we can find ways to do it better.

Thumbnail credit: David McNew/Getty Images

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Lisa Margonelli is a writer on energy and environment. She spent four years and traveled 100,000 miles to write her book, "Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank." More

Lisa Margonelli directs the New America Foundation's Energy Productivity Initiative, which works to promote energy efficiency as a way of ensuring energy security, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and economic security for American families. She spent roughly four years and traveled 100,000 miles to report her book about the oil supply chain, Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, which the American Library Association named one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007. She spent her childhood in Maine where, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, her family heated the house with wood hauled by a horse. Later, fortunately, they got a tractor. The experience instilled a strong appreciation for the convenience of fossil fuels.

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