Opinion

Give the states more control over drilling

Democrats and Republicans in Washington are squabbling over an offshore energy exploration bill the House passed Tuesday night 236-189. They disagree whether the Democrats' bill does enough to promote oil and gas drilling, and whether the Republicans' version to drill closer to shore would produce more results, and faster.

Both approaches are flawed. They don't do enough to protect and reward the coastal states that may be at risk in case of unforeseen accidents. And they don't give those states enough say in what happens to gas or oil found and produced off their shores.

The Senate ought to fix these flaws in the short time remaining before it adjourns for the fall elections, but that's not likely to happen. That chamber is also torn – and in any case, the White House has threatened a veto.

That will discourage many Americans fed up over high energy costs as well as the price of gas at the pump. But regardless of where Congress allows drilling or how soon, it's not likely to result in an appreciable effect on gas prices, and certainly not for years.

The bill approved Tuesday would reverse a 26-year-old ban on drilling off the East and West coasts and allow exploration within a zone between 50 and 100 miles offshore if states specifically authorize it. There would be no restraints on drilling beyond 100 miles, but no drilling could take place closer than 50 miles to land.

Congress made two exceptions, retaining a ban on the Georges Bank off the New England coast, a prime fishing ground, and on Florida's Gulf Coast.

North Carolina's delegation split, with the state's seven Democratic congressmen, plus Republicans Robin Hayes and Walter Jones, voting for the bill. Republicans Howard Coble, Virginia Foxx, Patrick McHenry and Sue Myrick voted no.

Republicans argued that drilling closer to shore would have produced more energy. But Democrats are wary of potential environmental damage and of using up resources without pressing for development of alternative energy sources, which the House bill includes. Rep. Hayes also argued that the bill should have paid the states significant royalties.

He's right. But Gov. Mike Easley had a better perspective from the state's viewpoint as well as national security. He urged the N.C. delegation to specify that the states own rights to newfound offshore oil supplies, not private oil companies whose motivation is profit. States are more likely to protect their citizens and their economic security, he argued.

Maybe, although the state of North Carolina hasn't always adequately protected its own coastline from the pollution that comes from inland sources. Still, the notion that states ought to have more control over the energy reserves off their own coastline is compelling. If states must accept offshore drilling and the risks it carries, they surely ought to have more than just a veto over whether it happens.

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