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Rising Energy Prices Make Offshore Oil Drilling a Possibility Again

The U.S. Senate has blocked a vote on an amendment to a spending bill that would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas exploration. The House of Representatives has approved the legislation. Rising demand for both transportation and heating fuel this winter have revived interest in drilling in Alaska, as well as parts of the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Ventura, California.

In January, 1969, a spill at an oil platform off the central coast of California released 4,500 barrels of crude into the water, killing thousands of birds and other animals.

The event was largely responsible for the growth of the environmentalist movement and today there is a ban on offshore oil operations here as well as on the Atlantic coast.

Seventeen-year-old surfer Josh Gowner opposes the return of offshore oil operations anywhere near his favorite beach. "I am pretty sure it would have some effect, having all the boating traffic and chances of oil spills and things like that, we would have to do a lot more cleanup."

But many energy experts, like Houston banker Matt Simmons, see an energy crisis looming.

"I would immediately get rid of our drilling bans on the outer continental shelf of the United States and begin a desperate search for natural gas in the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico because we do not have a future for the U.S. economy unless we figure out our natural gas crisis," said Mr. Simmons.

Clean-burning natural gas has been touted as an alternative to coal and petroleum, but supply has not kept up with demand.

That's why many energy companies want to explore for oil and gas on the Gulf Coast of Florida, in Alaska and in federal waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

But many environmentalists and some energy experts favor an alternate approach.

Amory Lovins, Chief Executive Officer of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, argues that it would not only be safer for the environment, but more economical for the nation to promote conservation and alternative energy development.

"All the oil we use, or will use,” says Mr. Lovins, “can be saved and substituted cheaper than buying it in the market at the market price."

He says the United States could completely eliminate its oil use within a few decades. Mr. Lovins says half of this could be accomplished simply by taking bold steps to reduce waste and improve efficiency in vehicles, buildings and factories.

Amory Lovins says more efficient generators would help save natural gas at electric plants and that development of a biofuel industry would have the additional benefit of creating 750,000 agriculture jobs.

But some energy experts are skeptical about the numbers cited by Mr. Lovins and question the feasibility of developing biofuels on the scale he mentions.

A bleak energy future is predicted unless there is a major scientific breakthrough in the coming years. Matt Simmons is one of them. "In the meantime, we need to do everything we can do to dampen demand and manage supply."

Energy industry leaders say they favor dampening demand through conservation, but that the only way to manage supply is to develop all the oil and gas that is available.

And that takes U.S. back to the California coast, where even beach lovers, like Mel Hester, worry new offshore energy drilling may be inevitable.

"I have mixed feelings about it,” Mr. Hester says. “I hate to disturb the wildlife or any of these wilderness areas, but, on the other hand, we as a nation do not seem to be willing to conserve enough that we might not have to do things like that."