Few seem satisfied with President Barack Obama's new oil and gas drilling plan. The industry opposes making more of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a highly protected wilderness area. Environmentalists oppose opening the southern and mid Atlantic coast to limited offshore oil and gas operations. In fact, the president's intention to do both is a balanced proposal that promotes sensible conservation and energy exploration.
The 20 million-acre refuge in Alaska is one of the last areas of pristine wilderness in the United States, a glorious place of high mountains, rushing rivers, green valleys and spotless coastline. Forty-two species of fish, 201 species of birds and 47 species of land mammals, including polar bears, caribou, wolves, moose and grizzly bears, make it home. Many species in the refuge are endangered or close to it. Oil companies want to bring drilling equipment into the refuge's coastal plain, not just to less restricted areas further west. Washington has argued for decades about whether to allow that. In the latest round, Obama proposed making an additional 5 million acres of refuge a wilderness area, applying the highest level of federal protection.
Since the GOP-led Congress is certain to oppose permanently closing the refuge to drilling, the substantive result of Obama's decision is to keep exploration off-limits for at least the next two years. The administration's caution is reasonable. The country's onshore oil boom has already brought vast oil deposits into production. Oil and gas production will also proceed elsewhere in the Arctic, allowing for further technological improvement in harsh conditions. Given all that and the area's environmental sensitivity, the case for conservation should win out.
By contrast, the Atlantic coast is neither as dangerous to operate in nor as undisturbed as the Arctic refuge. To be sure, there are ecological and economic risks to drilling there, just as there are to drilling in the Gulf of Mexico — and for that matter, in the Caspian Sea, the Niger Delta and other places where the world continues to pursue fuel. As long as the economy requires oil and gas, someone will have to bear risk somewhere to obtain it — and, we would add, to profit from the offsetting economic benefits.
The Interior Department reckons that there is a net $23 billion to $170 billion worth of value to be harvested from the mid Atlantic's outer continental shelf, but these calculations are fuzzy. The government doesn't know how much oil and gas is there; politicians have been tantalized for years that it might contain more than estimated. More information on the area's deposits will be collected, followed by years of study and public comment, before the government would conduct its first lease sale.
In at least one more way the president's proposal is good policy — but ill-suited to winning friends in Washington. Under the plan, East Coast state governments wouldn't get a cut of federal offshore oil and gas royalty revenue. Other states have extracted royalty-sharing deals from the federal government. Royalty-seeking states say they incur risks when drilling proceeds off their coasts. Yet by advocating for drilling, they expose their neighbors to similar risks. The outer continental shelf is a federal asset — and a federal responsibility. The whole country should reap the benefits.