October 11, 2008

Offshore Oil Drilling’s Promise and Problems

Offshore drilling could provide much-needed energy or create huge environmental problems, panelists at a Richmond Times-Dispatch Public Square said last night. The debate at the newspaper's downtown offices drew about 40 people, including the four panelists - two in support of drilling for oil or natural gas and two against.

High gasoline prices and concerns over oil imports have heightened interest in offshore oil and gas. Congress and President Bush recently set aside longstanding bans on new drilling.

The nation will continue to need oil for a long time, said Michael Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, an industry group.

"Offshore oil production is one way to reduce dependence on foreign oil," he said.

The opponents said fossil fuels such as oil contribute to global warming. They said money should be invested in alternative fuels such as biodiesel.

"We really need to be moving to a new energy future," said Nat Mund, legislative director for the Southern Environmental Law Center, a Charlottesville-based conservation group.

Chuck Bedell, a retired executive with Murphy Exploration & Production Co., an oil company, said some observers are not sure of the degree to which people are causing global warming.

"I think they deserve to be listened to in the spirit of science," Bedell said.

The opponents indicated that oil spills could taint Virginia's tourist beaches.

"You are going to have to put those economic engines at risk to pursue a small amount of oil," said Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

As for energy dependence, Besa said, "We're always going to be dependent on significant portions of our oil coming from overseas."

Bedell said oil rigs today are so high-tech that they resemble the machines of science fiction. "We are in this business to sell product, not to spill it."

Federal officials say 3.8 billion barrels of oil - perhaps enough to last the U.S. about six months - may lie off the Atlantic coast.

Besa said that's not much. But Ward said those estimates are based on 1970s research, and exploration may turn up big reserves. "We may be astounded."

Thomas A. Silvestri, president and publisher of The Times- Dispatch, moderated the program.

During a public comment period, Michael J. Schewel, former Virginia secretary of commerce and trade, said his office produced a 2006 report on exploring for natural gas off the Virginia coast. He said offshore drilling would not have much impact on oil supplies or pose big environmental problems.

"The issue to me is efficiency," he said. "That's the thing that reduces our consumption." Later, he added, "That is the best short- term solution to our energy dilemma."

Midlothian resident Mike Harton introduced himself by his first name and admitted to an oil addiction as the owner of an 8-cylinder Jeep, a boat and eight other power accessories.

"Yet I'm willing to admit that my addiction, our addiction, is not sustainable," he said. "Concentrating on feeding our addiction by more drilling is backward thinking."

Contact Rex Springston at (804) 649-6453 or [email protected]


MEMO: PUBLIC SQUARE; BREAKING NEWS 10/07/2008 9:29 PM on inRich.com

State Edition story also in Merlin

Originally published by SPRINGSTON; Times-Dispatch Staff Writer.

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