Picture a 20-mile swath of pristine South Carolina shoreline covered in globules of tar-like oil, dead fish rotting, birds dying a slow death in the muck and no tourists in sight. It could happen here if Congress goes along with a plan to end the 27-year-old ban on on offshore drilling.
The idea that the United States can drill its way out of the oil crisis and achieve some sort of energy independence is a myth. At best, it postpones the inevitable need to find alternative sources of energy and diminishes the nation's resolve to do so.
The pain of $4-a-gallon gasoline is real. But trying to engineer a drop in oil prices so we can continue to drive gas-guzzling cars and ignore the threat of global warming is both unrealistic and irresponsible.
Skeptics will say that sounds like tree-hugger sermonizing. What about all the Americans who can't afford to put gas in their cars?
The real issue, however, is whether offshore drilling would do anything to alleviate that pain. More likely, it merely would jeopardize environmental assets that help provide a decent living for hundreds of thousands of Americans while primarily benefiting the oil industry.
The plan to allow offshore drilling "significantly weakens the vital protections that South Carolina's coastline has enjoyed for the last 25 years ... and could negatively impact the largest industry in our state."
That is part of a letter written by Gov. Mark Sanford in 2006 to the state's legislative delegation when the last proposal to lift the offshore drilling ban was floated in Congress. Sanford now says he would be open to "lifting the moratorium if states got to decide what happened next."
Both of South Carolina's Republican senators, Lindsay Graham and Jim DeMint, back the plan. Officials in Virginia, Mississippi, Florida and Alaska largely support lifting the ban. California, North Carolina and New Jersey still are opposed.
Sadly, this proposal is more election-year pandering than anything else. At best, the benefits of lifting the ban would be modest.
The announcement of U.S. intentions to expand offshore drilling might prompt some nations with large oil reserves to put more oil on the market, dropping the price. Traders speculating on oil futures might rush to sell their shares, which also could reduce oil prices. Prices at the pump could go down, and we could put off plans to buy a hybrid for the time being.
But the oil from increased offshore drilling along the U.S. coast would not be available for years. Meanwhile, demand for oil from India and China will continue to rise.
While America consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day, a quarter of the oil consumed worldwide, it produces only about 8 million gallons a day. Even with additional exploration, energy independence is a pipe dream.
Big Oil also has successfully perpetrated the myth that the federal government has placed vast reserves of oil on federal land off limits to exploration. The favorite example is the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
In fact, about two-thirds of the 36 billion barrels of oil thought to lie under federal land already is accessible to drillers. Four-fifths of the estimated 39 billion barrels of offshore oil already are accessible to drillers willing to go get them, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska.
But the oil industry is not drilling wells there. Which makes one wonder whether the push for lifting the ban on offshore drilling and drilling in ANWR is just a timely effort to open all the available federal reserves for drilling while a friendly administration is in the White House.
Even if domestic oil production rises, the United States will continue to be dependent on oil from unfriendly nations. The longer we delay pursuing a balanced energy policy, the more we endanger our national security and prosperity.
As painful as $4 gas might be, that isn't the real issue. The real issue is whether we are willing to endanger our shorelines to feed what even President Bush has labeled an "addiction to oil," and what kind of world we want to leave our children and grandchildren.