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The Case Against Drilling

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Message Chris England

Most opponents of offshore drilling or drilling in Alaska have focused their arguments on one point; the environmental ramifications of drilling. But, truth be told, there are more cogent reasons why we shouldn't drill which go unmentioned, because public dialogue revolves around politicians who are compelled to abide by certain norms. In this case the problem in question is an extreme aversion to pessimism; it doesn't sell. So, the dialogue continues all the time with an implicit assumption that is not only laughable but outright dangerous. We imagine that cheap, limitless energy is just around the corner and so we wait patiently and blindly for the great deus ex machina, technology, to play the role of universal panacea and solve all of our problems.

Nuclear power has been around for fifty years. During it's infancy there was little doubt that it would quickly become infinitely cheaper than fossil fuels. Fifty years later and nuclear power is still more expensive than the sky rocketing price of fossil fuels. That delusion has long since been put to rest and replaced with new ones as we wait eagerly for cheap solar and wind power. The technology to power this country with nuclear, solar and wind power has long been there; it hasn't happened because it didn't make sense to the market--these options are, and more likely than not will continue to be more expensive than fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. There will be energy for the future, but it'll probably never be as cheap as it used to be. So the debate over drilling shouldn't just be about whether it's worth the cost to the environment. We should also seriously be asking the question: would we rather have that oil now when gasoline is $4 a gallon, or 10 years from now when it's $10 a gallon.

To put it succinctly, the longer we wait to drill, the more the oil will be worth, the more likely it is that it'll help to deal with an even more tenuous situation than we're already in. Oil is an important resource whose value transcends that of supplying us with energy; it's also is used for pharmaceuticals and plastics. Maintaining oil reserves is an important part of national security. To toss that away over political pressure as Americans are just beginning to pay the sort of prices for gas that Europeans have been paying for years would be yet another rash and immature decision in the long line of rash and immature decisions that is American energy policy.

For all the complaining that we do about high gas prices, it's something that we need to learn to live with, and while attempts to mitigate it shouldn't be altogether avoided, we shouldn't be sacrificing our oil reserves, our jobs or the national budget to do so. This crisis hasn't hit Europeans as hard as it has Americans. Why? Because Europeans have had high gas prices for many years and they've adapted to them. They are much more likely to live in urban centers where they can get around by foot, by bike,or via public transit. When the gas prices spiked in America, most Americans didn't have the option of jumping on the subway. Many had two hour commutes in faroff communities with no public transit. Even some major cities--L.A. for example--have virtually no public transit and are sprawled in such a fashion to make public transit difficult or impossible. We need high gas prices to spawn market forces which will create a whole new infrastructure in this nation. We need people pushed into more dense areas, a public transit system expanded to accommodate increased use, and empty space on the road which can be made into sidewalks and bike lanes.

If we're going to survive high gas prices we need to utterly revamp America's infrastructure to become more energy efficient. It isn't going to happen overnight. It's a process that could take decades and as we've seen, it won't happen unless high gas prices force us to make it happen. If we don't and if we're left bereft of our oil reserves, gas prices skyrocket, and many Americans will still have two-hour commutes to make with no public transit to help, The entire economic fabric of the country could unravel. At that point, we'll look back with great regret at our myopic, shortsighted policies, primary of which will be energy.
Athough we"-ll also be thinking twice about the wall along the Mexican border, because by that point, it'll be us trying to swim across the river.

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Chris England graduated from UC Berkeley in 2006 and is currently a Ph.D. student at Georgetown University.
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