The incredible fib

The Baltimore Sun

Consumer frustration over high gasoline prices has apparently been judged blind-rage-inducing enough to trot out the usual discredited solution, domestic oil drilling. President Bush recently reiterated his desire to drill just about everywhere from Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Gulf of Mexico as a way to offer consumers relief at the pump.

Sen. John McCain, whose energy credentials were already suspect with his earlier endorsement of a counterproductive (at least as a solution to gas prices) summer-long gas tax holiday, joined the fray last week. He'd like to see offshore derricks ringing the coastline as well and would even dangle financial incentives to encourage states to lift their own bans on coastal exploration.

Allowing oil companies to drill within 200 miles of the U.S. shoreline would certainly have an impact - but only on the environment and producer profits. Prices wouldn't go down. In global terms, North America doesn't have the reserves to do that.

The estimated 75 billion barrels of oil lying underneath the undisturbed tundra in ANWR, for instance, may sound like a lot, but in terms of oil demand it really isn't. The Energy Information Administration estimates that it might reduce gasoline prices by as much as 5 cents a gallon by 2027.

States like Florida may be tempted by the lure of revenue from new offshore leases, but the Sunshine State is gambling with a multibillion-dollar tourism industry that depends greatly on Atlantic and Gulf coast beaches that are not befouled by oil spills.

Sadly, there's evidence that Americans may be susceptible to this siren song. A recent Gallup poll suggested that a majority favor opening up new territories to drilling - and an apparent misunderstanding of the facts has given the oil industry an opening.

The real answer to the nation's energy woes would involve greater conservation, higher fuel efficiency standards and the development of renewable alternatives. But even that wouldn't lead to an immediate and substantial downturn in gasoline prices - and that's a painful reality most pols don't care to discuss.

America can't drill its way out of $4-a-gallon gasoline, but like Bruce Banner's alter ego on a rampage, indiscriminate drilling could cause a lot of destruction while trying.

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