You Decide

Produced by KQED

image montage: oil rigs, ocean waves, u.s. west coast, fuel gauge, oil production curveImage CreditShould the United States drill for oil in protected offshore waters?

By Chris Raphael

Think you know where you stand?

In 1981, back when crude oil averaged $35 a barrel and gasoline cost around $1.30 a gallon, Congress prohibited oil drilling off the California shoreline to prevent oil spills and protect tourism. A series of Congressional and presidential actions since then — including a 1990 executive ban by President George H.W. Bush — now prohibits drilling off both coasts as well as in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

But gasoline costs have changed, and so have the times: As crude oil prices wreak havoc on an American economy hooked on foreign oil, pressure is building to lift the moratorium and lower the offshore drill.

The debate centers around oil exploration and production in the still-protected federal areas of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), which extends from three miles to 200 miles offshore. No one knows for sure how much oil may lie in these underwater reservoirs, but based on geologic modeling, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that 18 billion barrels of oil could be hiding there. The figure is for “unproven reserves,” meaning oil companies have not fully explored these areas to see what’s there — we might find more oil, we might find less.

Those who favor lifting the ban argue that oil is a supply-and-demand business, and new sources of crude could help lower gasoline prices and ease foreign oil dependence, or at least displace some imports. They also maintain that oil extraction and shipping from offshore rigs is safe, citing oil operations in the Gulf of Mexico as proof.

But critics stress that the amount of oil that would be found offshore, even by U.S. government estimates, is statistically negligible in a global market and wouldn’t save gasoline consumers more than a few pennies on the gallon, if anything. They also contend that the environmental risks of new drilling, such as oil spills, aren’t worth the small payback to the American pocketbook.

How secure are you in your opinion? During the course of this activity, we will ask you four times: Should the United States drill for oil in protected offshore waters? Based on your responses, we will argue the opposite points of view. Only your final vote will count toward the results of this poll.

Should the United States drill for oil in protected offshore waters?

Nothing about the issues facing the candidates and American voters in 2008 is black and white. With these You Decide activities, you can explore both sides of an issue, put your own critical thinking to work, and discuss the pros and cons with others. In the end, perhaps you will ask different — and better — questions than those presented here.


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