There's nothing like a long, rust-colored stream of sludge threatening the nation's Southern shores to bolster the case against offshore oil drilling. Public support for drilling has fallen — though the Pew Research Center says 54 percent of Americans still favor it — and some lawmakers are seeking measures to ban it. But some say cutting off future domestic drilling projects could do the country more harm than good.
"We should not overreact because there was an incident," says Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for Analysis for Global Security, a think tank that advocates for greater energy independence. That incident was the rig explosion and subsequent uncontrolled oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
'A Self-Defeating Proposition'
Luft says reducing consumption — or investing more in alternative energy sources — is not a practical solution to the fundamental problem. "As long as our cars, trucks, ships and planes can run on nothing but oil," he says, "we will always be beholden to the same constraints as we are facing today."
Moreover, Luft says, though the U.S. now gets only one-eighth of its energy off its own shores, the supply from continental domestic reserves long ago peaked and is now diminishing. So, he says, cutting off offshore drilling will make energy more expensive. And the U.S. would become more dependent on oil-producing nations that pose a threat to the country.
"The price of oil will increase, and all of us will pay more at the pump," he says. "So from an economic standpoint, this is a self-defeating proposition. And from a national security standpoint, this is only going to exacerbate the very same problems we're trying to solve."
Still, Washington appears to be heeding the calls to check drilling — at least for now. The Obama administration suspended its Virginia offshore drilling plan, and several new bills in Congress propose a halt to all new activity on the West Coast — or off all national waters.
Also, the Senate's climate change bill includes new provisions allowing states to veto any federal plans to drill within 75 miles of their shores, and Florida may consider a ballot this fall blocking drilling off its shores.
Spotlighting Energy Independence — Or Lack Thereof
The prospect of cutting back domestic drilling has shed an unflattering light, again, on the country's dependence on foreign oil. Whether or not the U.S. expands drilling, says Athan Manuel, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, the nation is heavily dependent on oil imports.
"We could drill everywhere — we could drill in Arlington Cemetery, we could drill in Yankee Stadium, we could drill in Yosemite, and we would never find as much oil as we need to supply the demand here in the United States," Manuel says.
He says the oil shocks of the early 1970s inspired calls for more domestic oil production, too. But since then, U.S. crude oil imports have tripled.
The only real solution, Manuel says, is to innovate through alternative energy sources. And without a moratorium on new drilling, there will be fewer incentives to do so.
'A Freak Occurrence'
The American Petroleum Institute argues that no moratorium is necessary. The trade group ran ads promoting the benefits of offshore drilling in 2008, when President George W. Bush lifted an executive order banning the practice. Back then, two-thirds of Americans supported offshore drilling.
"Now more than ever," one ad stated, "it's time to put America's energy to work for Americans and America's economy."
That's still the basic argument that Erik Milito, API's director of exploration and production, makes today. He says the offshore industry supplies hundreds of thousands of jobs.
He admits that given the visibility of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, it's harder to make the pro-drilling case these days.
"It's difficult ... and like I said, we want that to be a one-time incident that never happens again," he says, calling it a "freak occurrence."
But, he says, at least he can still say he has a majority of the American public on his side.