Fast Cars, Oil, and Offshore Drilling

Believe it or not, we've got a lot of rigs out in the coastal waters.


I left Denver, driving west, and (irresponsibly disregarding my own safety and that of other travelers and with a shamefully wasteful discharge of CO2) decided to see if the Mustang could still top 100 miles per hour.

I was delivering the car to my daughter, who's in school in L.A. It was the last leg of the farewell tour for my faithful 1996 ragtop and me. The engine had been tuned, the new tires were aligned, and it was just past dawn on one of those long, straight stretches of western highway.

No problem. Not even a shimmy at 105.

Cruising along, I listened to an exchange on talk radio about offshore oil drilling. The proponents made a persuasive-sounding case that if we didn't start sinking some holes in the Gulf of Mexico soon, the Chinese and Cubans would suck it dry.

Bad environmentalists, I thought, gleefully passing a Prius.

I turned the channel, found a country station, and got properly sentimental as Sugarland sang "Baby Girl."

I ste-yul love yu morr then anythin' in th' wuurld...

I brought it down to 85, sobbing not especially conducive to racing.

That night, in my motel room in Gallup, N.M., I switched on the TV. The cable news channels were tracking the path of Hurricane Gustav.

And there was a forecaster, with a map that looked like this, showing the thousands of oil and gas rigs in the shallow Gulf waters, threatened by the mighty storm.

Whoa. That's a mess of rigs. Bad oil companies, thought I.

Funny how you don't connect things sometimes.

I bring this all up because Congress, spurred by $4-a-gallon gasoline, is set to act on offshore drilling this week.

Floridians, it seems, have been more worried about their pristine beaches and tourist industry (go figure) than the residents of Galveston and Mobile. And so the eastern third of the Gulf—from Key West, up past Naples, Captiva and Sanibel islands, Sarasota and Clearwater to Panama City—is still largely free from energy development.

House Democrats caucused yesterday and agreed to open offshore regions 100 miles from shore to drilling and to give coastal states from Virginia to Florida the authority, should they wish, to trim that limit to 50 miles.

This being an election year, the Republicans have reacted predictably, condemning the Democratic proposal as insufficient and demanding that we give Exxon and the rest of the energy industry the freedom to drill, baby, drill right off the beaches.

This is the first of the great energy debates we're destined to endure in the coming years, as the world's swollen population and the industrialization of China and India put relentless upward pressure on oil prices and choke the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. It would be nice if we could get it right; good if someone in Washington showed some guts and offered more than immediate gratification.

As much as I treasure fast cars and the highway, the Democratic proposal seems more than sufficient—maybe overly so. I love Florida's lazy, endless beaches. And Ocean City, Virginia Beach, Nags Head, and Hilton Head, too. I want to see dolphins and sailboats and gulls at the ocean. Not industry—or its mistakes.

If I want to gaze at pipes and stacks, I can take a cooler and a folding chair and camp out on the Jersey Turnpike. It's long past time we weaned ourselves from oil.

The Mustang is in Southern California. My daughter put the top down the other day and drove it to the beach, where the Pacific waves roll in, and the palm trees sway, and the sun sets upon clear ocean water, beyond a horizon unmarred by oil rigs.

It's a good place for convertibles to go to die.

Truth be told, it was a hog in the snow.