Will Offshore Oil Drilling Help?

Offshore drilling brings us closer to changing our planet irreversibly.

Oct. 1, 2008— -- With contentious issues on our minds ranging from bailing out Wall Street to picking the next president, it's no wonder that a momentous act of Congress slipped under the radar screen last week with little notice. A 26-year-old moratorium on drilling in federal waters off our shores quietly went down the tubes. Although this action doesn't mean that drilling is imminent, it does mean that the government could offer leases in some Atlantic waters as early as 2011.

It was doomed by two powerful myths. It was sold to the people as one way to bring down prices at the gas pump. But it won't. And it has been described repeatedly as moving us closer to energy independence. But it won't.

And it's just one more step in the wrong direction. The only way to achieve energy independence and bring down those awful gas prices is to wean ourselves away from relying on a fuel that is, quite literally, poisoning the entire planet. But the fact that Congress, and both candidates for the presidency, went along with this scheme is all the proof we need that the country is still not committed to developing alternative fuels on the scale that this challenge demands.

Instead, apparently we're willing to place our hopes for the future on offshore derricks that are at least a decade away, and will supply at best a tiny fraction of the oil this country depends upon. And by the way, if oil is selling for $200 a barrel when those platforms begin producing, don't expect a break in the price. It will sell for $200 a barrel.

The maddening part of this scenario is real progress is being made on numerous fronts ranging from solar energy to tidal power. Here's my prediction: The energy picture is going to be very, very different before the first of those offshore platforms are erected. And it's not because of altruism. It's driven by two powerful forces. There's lots of money to be made in alternative energy. And people are going to conserve more because they can't afford to do anything else.

Some of these developments are already in the works. In laboratories across the country, and in suburban garages, and in major industrial sectors, some very bright folks are moving us closer to freedom from oil.

One lab, for example, is close to decomposing water into hydrogen and oxygen by heating it with concentrated sunlight. Someday, the engineer in charge of that project told me, we should be able to extract hydrogen in our backyards and use it to heat our homes and power our vehicles.

Another has developed a new type of battery that could supply far more electricity than any battery of the same size on the market today.

Both of these men are excited about their work, and they both face the same problem: inadequate funding.

Instead of supporting research like that, Congress is going to loan the U.S. auto industry $25 billion to see if it can catch up with a number of foreign auto manufacturers who are already selling vehicles that are relatively fuel efficient.

And we, as a nation, are going to place our hopes in offshore drilling. That may not sound catastrophic, but it is one more step toward changing our planet in irreversible ways.

In his fascinating book, "The Making of the Fittest," biologist Sean B. Carroll, professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argues that the human footprint is so large and so intrusive that our activities are now directing the evolution of the planet. Carroll cites the ocean as the most glaring evidence. The oceans were once thought to be so huge and so inaccessible that humans could never destroy them, but that, alas, has turned out not to be true.

"A perfect storm is brewing -- of overfishing, pollution, and man-made climate change -- that threatens to extinguish ecosystems beyond any chance of recovery," Carroll writes. "One need only look at habitats close to population centers for abundant evidence of the synergistic effects of these three forces."

He cites many examples. Stocks of tuna and other far-ranging fish have been reduced by about 90 percent, according to several studies. Year after year, the largest fish are taken as smaller fish slip through the nets. Humans have assumed the task of natural selection. The fishermen I know in my state of Alaska say the salmon they catch are smaller now than they used to be, and that's because the big fish have been eliminated from the gene pool.

Carroll offers this quote from a fellow biologist:

"It is as if man had been appointed managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution ... whether he is conscious of what he is doing or not, he is in point of fact determining the future direction of evolution of this Earth. That is his inescapable destiny, and the sooner he realizes it and starts believing it, the better for all concerned."

That quote is from Julian Huxley, Aldous' brother, and he said it half a century ago.

So what's wrong with offshore drilling? The platforms are ugly and sometimes result in messy spills. But the larger problem is they contribute to the industrialization of the oceans and a not-so-gradual takeover of natural forces by human activities.

We could still change that. We're in the driver's seat. Aren't we?