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Florida's Oil Revolt
Thursday, July 5, 2001; Page A12
THIS WEEK'S decision against oil drilling right off the coast of Florida is a defeat for the administration's ambitions to expand energy supplies; but it's a defeat with a large twist. The politics surrounding it dramatized one of President Bush's central claims about energy policy: That new supply is often blocked by an emotional mixture of environmental fears and NIMBYism. Here was a drilling proposal first advanced by the greenish Clinton administration; yet it was set upon as though it were some plot cooked up by oil men from Houston. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida spoke of "waves of oil lapping onto our shores" and used the anti-democratic device of placing a hold on the Senate confirmation of the would-be No. 2 official at the Interior Department. Meanwhile Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush fought the proposal despite the embarrassment to his brother, and he celebrated his victory on Monday with a Not-In-My-Back-Yard howl of triumph. The new drilling would now be off the coast of Alabama, the governor said.
The good news is that the administration has suffered a blow to a part of its energy policy that was never convincing. It's true that as the population and economy grow the country needs more oil and, especially, natural gas; but the idea that U.S. security depends on new oil exploration is exaggerated. The nation currently imports about half its oil, and whether that reliance on outsiders rises or falls by 5 or 10 percentage points won't greatly affect U.S. ability to deal with troublesome producers such as Iraq. Equally, the idea that U.S. economic security depends on new oil exploration is a stretch. Expanded U.S. production won't guarantee lower oil prices for consumers. Indeed, the Persian Gulf states might respond to new U.S. supply by cutting their production, leaving world prices unchanged.
Judgments about new oil exploration therefore come down to a simple question: Do the profits from selling the oil outweigh the environmental risks? The answer depends on how much you value the environment, which is to say that it will vary in different states. The prospect of exploration platforms 17 miles offshore was enough to trigger a mini-revolt in Florida -- even though they would likely have been extracting relatively clean gas rather than potentially polluting oil. But other Gulf Coast states are more tolerant of offshore drilling. It's not so terrible to take these local and political factors into account.
The same cannot be said, however, for another part of the Bush energy plan, which calls for an expanded effort to build electricity transmission lines. Here there is a pressing national interest in modernizing the electricity grid, which would make blackouts less likely and reduce the nation's overall need for power plants by allowing electricity to be shared among different regions. But the same emotional mix of environmentalism and NIMBYism frustrates the building of transmission lines. This is an area where the Bush administration ought to win.
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