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Americans know their nation needs to wean itself from foreign oil - and eventually from petroleum altogether - but seemingly can't agree on the steps they're willing to take to boost oil and natural gas production here at home.
Should areas off our coasts now off-limits to drilling be opened to exploration? Should drilling be allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a battle zone for years between environmentalists and those who believe that area's oil reserves need to be tapped?
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain called last week for an end to the ban on U.S. offshore oil and natural gas exploration, supporting President George W. Bush's call for the nation to reduce its energy dependence on other nations. However, Sen. Barack Obama, who will face McCain in the fall race, opposes that move, saying opening up coastal areas to exploration would do little to ease short-term oil and gas prices.
What's missing from the sound bites and political divisiveness is a science-based discussion on energy and the alternatives available to us. There's too much extremism in the debate over the nation's energy policy and political partisanship seldom leads to intelligent dialogue.
That's certainly the case in the debate over the Arctic wilderness, which holds billions of barrels of oil. Drilling there, as well as now-closed areas off our coasts, supporters say, will bring much-needed oil onto the world market, reducing prices. Opponents point to dangers to fragile plant and animal ecosystems from ruptured pipelines and tankers that still on occasion leak or run aground.
Americans should be told in honest, forthright ways about the benefits and risks of oil and gas exploration. Just how much can be extracted, what will be the likely impact on crude prices and what are the dangers to the environment? Those are the steps we should demand from our legislators who will vote on opening up areas for exploration.
Oil spills in the past have damaged the environment in horrible ways but past mistakes shouldn't rule out acknowledging technological advances that make drilling safer and more efficient, on land and at sea. Not many years ago, drilling for oil offshore was an accident-prone endeavor, and those justifiable concerns led to bans still in place. But now companies produce millions of barrels of oil every day in deep water.
Instead of shouting that there can't be any new drilling in Alaska or the Arctic, or that drilling should be allowed everywhere, Congress needs to ask for facts of what remaining oil and natural-gas reserves can be brought online.
But that's not all our nation's president and Congress need to do. Much more effort needs to go into practical research into finding realistic energy alternatives such as wind, solar and hydroelectric power, ways to truly use coal so it doesn't pollute our air and how to efficiently turn renewable plants into fuel.
Some of those green-energy efforts are taking place here.
An Ohio utility will soon harness the power of moving water at the Cannelton Locks and Dam to produce electricity and plans by a local man to purchase a small wind turbine at his home were discussed last week by the Tell City Electric Department. The small project he is eyeing will provide some of the power needed for his home and most interesting, with excess power flowing back into the city's energy grid. In windy months, he'll get a check in the mail for the extra energy.
The current energy crisis affects us all and is quickly leading to tough decisions on how to obtain more of the oil and gas we need. A hurricane powering through the Gulf of Mexico this summer or more turmoil in oil-producing nations in the Mideast, Africa or South America will mean even higher prices at the pump.
It's unfortunate oil shortages in the 1970s didn't do more to promote alternative energy. Sure, some people added solar panels to their homes and purchased smaller cars. But gas prices eventually fell and people turned to SUVs and forgot about conservation. All that has changed now. What hasn't changed is the reluctance of legislators to engage in a real dialogue about how to provide the oil-based energy we need today and the cleaner, sustainable energy we'll need tomorrow.
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