I was confronted with two stories yesterday, seemingly unrelated.  One was about efforts by natural gas exporting countries to create a formal organization that many fear will morph into a natural gas cartel similar to the OPEC oil cartel.  The other was a story sent to me by a friend about the rescue of a humpback whale off of the California coast where at the conclusion of the rescue the whale went to each rescuer and nudged them as if to say thank you.  It is a moving story that reminds us of our responsibility to preserve other forms of life, some perhaps of very high intelligence.  The latter story was from the San Francisco Chronicle dated December 14, 2005 and entitled Daring rescue of whale off Farallones

Receiving both of these stories comes as I’m finally reading a book that I’ve had on my bookshelf for a year now.  I’d seen it on a list last year at this time of the best books of 2007.  It’s entitled The Unnatural History of the Seaand authored by Callum Roberts.

The book tells the story of man’s centuries old abuse of our oceans and its creatures.  What we’re dealing with today is the result of centuries of overfishing and the complete insensitivity of mankind to the environment.  Reading its chapters on the Chesapeake Bay, including the Potomac River, was particularly interesting to me as I live but few minutes walk from the Potomac River in Washington, DC.  The book describes the Chesapeake Bay estuary when it was discovered as overflowing with fish and and other wildlife.  Observing it today one would suppose that nothing lives within its waters, though a few fishermen can be found angling along the banks despite the warnings not to eat more than certain quantities of fish due to the presence of heavy metals.  One certainly doesn’t see whales (including Killer Whales) or porpoises or fish so thick you could pluck them from the water.

That we must take better care of our waters seems very clear.  Living along the Chesapeake Bay estuary as I do and crossing it on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge dozens of times per year, I can think of few things that should be of a higher priority that cleaning up the bay and reestablishing a healthy fishery.  Yet, knowing what I know about offshore drilling, it wouldn’t faze me in the least to drill oil or gas wells into the bay.  I see the two things as completely unrelated.  My biggest concern with drilling would be with the visual impact and I would think that states would need to insist upon either directional drilling from shore (which can be done perfectly safely) or gas-only production from the waters themselves (as there would be no visual impact other than during the relatively short drilling phase).  This is what the Province of Ontario does in the Great Lakes.

Yet we in America, while we continue to drive our 4-wheel drive Suburbans to and from our homes built in suburbia in a manner that completely ignores the impact of runoff from our fertilized lawns on inland and coastal waters, refuse to consider drilling offshore.  It is completely illogical.  It is the kind of disconnect that we expect in an America that gets its information from soundbites rather than from serious inquiry.

This brings me back to the story that a number of countries that produce and export natural gas have created a formal organization that appears to be aimed at created an OPEC-like cartel for natural gas.  With the increase in the transport of liquified natural gas it is becoming more and more a world commodity.  As we in the United States build more import terminals we are at risk of becoming as economically dependent upon natural gas from abroad as we are on oil.

My very strongly held view is that we must first conserve, and secondly produce as much oil and natural gas at home before we import by sea any more oil or natural gas.  That we may soon have another cartel on our hands that aims to manipulate the supply and therefore the price of natural gas should be highly concerning.  It also means more petroleum products on more boats travelling into a ports, not an unrisky thing itself.

My conclusion in all of this is that President Obama has a unique opportunity to create a new energy policy in this country that is for the first time both rational and balanced.  Certainly a Democrat advocating offshore development will have far more credibility with the public than would any Republican becuase of the Democratic Party’s longstanding advocacy for the environment.  There doesn’t exist the suspicion that would exist with Republican leadership, however unjustified, that the decision is just about paying off campaign contributors.  For reasons including national security, the environment, and the economy, the country needs to expand its production of oil and natural gas at one and the same time that it expands development of alternative fuels and reduces the overall use of fossil-based fuels.  The only energy path forward is one that uses all of our energy resources as we transition to a completely new energy future.  For President Obama and the Democrats to squander this opportunity to at last put the country on the road to that rational energy future would be tragic.  There will never be a better time to get it right and it will not mean forsaking the environment.  It will, however, require saying no to irrationality and yes to progress.

When it comes to our environment, and especially our marine environment, we need to pay attention to the real causes of harm to that environment and the real risks of future harm.  Prudent oil and natural gas production incorporating the lasted technology has shown to be extremely safe and non-damaging to the marine environment.  I have toured production platforms in the North Sea and the California coast and know them to have, if anything, a positive impact on their immediate environment.  There will never be a better time than the present to get straight our goals, a clean environment and a sound energy future, and dispense with myths and untruths that muddy the waters of sound policy making.