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Oil is mixing with opportunism in national politics

Oil and water don’t mix; unfortunately opportunism and politics do.

It is a truism that in politics timing is everything and the current demand for the United States to end our moratorium on off shore oil and gas drilling is more about election year opportunity than energy independence.

The policies of both presidential candidates, President Bush, and the mostly Republican members of the U. S. Congress to begin oil drilling in the waters off our coasts comes at one of those rare political moments during which unfortunate events collide, roiling the waters and creating a clamor for immediate action—action which would not be taken in calmer seas.

Certain elements are necessary for such opportunism: fear among the people, financial hardship, war, shortages of essential goods and material, and an election day just around the corner. Each of those are now present, whether perceived or real.

It is in such a time that the political powerhouses, the big boys, strike. In this case the powerful are big oil and their goal is to drill in the ocean waters nearest America’s shores. This is also the opportune time for Congressional Republicans who for two years couldn’t find an issue with a search warrant. Finally, they have one—the energy crises.

With turmoil in the Middle East, terrorism on the march, America’s oil consumption at 20 million barrels a day, and the global oil business earning three trillion dollars a year, one would assume that now is the moment to begin freeing ourselves from oil addiction. Instead, the enormously powerful oil lobby is convincing both the Congress and apparently a majority of Americans that rather than move toward both conservation and alternative resources we should instead drill off shore.

We Rocky Mountain Westerners have watched this scenario of moneyed, political opportunism play out many times. As Montana’s Congressman during the 1970s, 80s and ’90s, I was deeply involved in one of these mad scrambles for oil. The same set of criteria for opportunism had come together back then. War in the Middle East, inflation, high prices and long lines at the gas pumps offered big oil the perfect moment and they moved to open up drilling opportunities in some of America’s most pristine and important places. The companies successfully enlisted the support of then President Ronald Reagan and his Secretary of the Interior, James Watt.

The exploration and drilling assault was to begin, of all places, in Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front and The Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Reagan and Watt, as it turned out, picked the wrong place. Despite the perceived energy shortages, long lines at the pump, and soaring gasoline prices, all due to the Arab Oil Embargo, Montanans and Americans refused to take the bait. The opposition to exploration and drilling in our last best place was widespread and the Congress accepted my resolution to prevent opening the Bob—and other wilderness areas—to the bit and bidding of the oil companies. Should our companies drill for oil? Of course... and they are. But reason demands that appropriate restraints be applied.

Should the U. S. Congress now open the waters near America’s shores to drilling? Although deep water exploration technology has improved during the past 30 years and oil spills have become increasingly unlikely, the spills that do happen are often catastrophic; restraint is warranted.

During the past 40 years there have been 90 major, notable oil spills in the world. Seven of those occurred just since the year 2000. The oil industry has documented 10,000 spills, almost all of which they place in the category of “small spills” that is, less than 7 tons of spilled fuel.

We all recall the 1989 Exxon Valdis tanker spill in Alaska which injured the economy of that state; the clean up of which still continues. In 1969 an offshore drilling well in the Santa Barbara Channel just off the coast of California experienced a catastrophic “blow out” which marred 35 miles of beach and spread for 800 square miles killing thousands of birds and sea life. Dead seals and dolphins were washed on shore by the oily tides. The local economy suffered significant damage.

The American people, through our president and the Congress, must decide if the risk is worth it. Ironically, it was President Bush’s father, former President H. W. Bush who decided the risk was too great and instituted the current ban on off shore drilling. Whether or not the Congress decides to remove the ban, we should resent the blatant opportunism practiced by many members of Congress as they dance to the tune of Big Oil.

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Author info

Rep. Pat Williams Rep. Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and is Northern Director of Western Progress.

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