Maybe Oregonians are fussbudgets when it comes to their coastline but - cranky us - we've never hankered to have oil derricks dotting the seascape off, say, Astoria, Newport and Florence.

This quirk in our character used to drive James Watt crazy. You remember James Watt. He was Ronald Reagan's first Interior secretary, a man who believed in the name of God and country that the highest use of the Outer Continental Shelf was to drill it for oil.

In the 1980s, when Watt proposed to lease virtually the whole of the western Outer Continental Shelf to oil exploration, I immodestly used my seat on the House Appropriations Committee to cut off the money he needed to pull it off.

For years, the amendment was routinely inserted in the Department of Interior's annual appropriation bill. Then President Bush the First, W's father, extended it for 10 years and Bill Clinton stretched it for another 10. Which means the current moratorium will be in force through 2012.

So, our shoreline is probably safe, right? Wrong. The energy bill now working its way through Congress would authorize massive tests throughout the Outer Continental Shelf to "inventory" offshore oil and gas reserves.

Now you mustn't think that this is the first step toward lifting the moratorium. The bill's supporters are assuring us that they're merely curious about how much oil and gas is out there in the briny deep. They promise that this provision does not in any way signal a desire to drill offshore.

Right. And Bonnie and Clyde were merely curious about what was inside the nation's banks. That the inventory is being heavily lobbied by the oil and gas industry is apparently a coincidence.

As in the 1980s, the question is not that the Outer Continental Shelf may hold oil and gas. All sides agree it does. But the real question is: Should energy trump other values in this scenic and biologically rich area?

It's past time for Americans to define when and where alternate values surpass our gluttonous appetite for oil and gas.

If we knew that the Grand Canyon was rich in oil, would we invite the drillers in? Or would we say some places are just so good, they should remain in their natural state?

How about the Columbia River Gorge? Mount Rushmore? The Everglades? I know, I know; these are extreme examples - no logical person would propose exploiting them for resources. But these examples make a point: If we can agree that a threshold exists where nature surpasses the importance of energy, then the question is if the natural state of our Outer Continental Shelf reaches that threshold.

Most Oregonians, Californians, and Washingtonians think it does. And they won't be talked out of their position at least until the Congress and Administration get serious about energy conservation.

Funny. Most conservation measures have been rejected in the new energy bill.

Left on the cutting room floor are proposals to require utilities to get 10 percent of their electric power from renewable energy sources like wind, and to require big increases in gas mileage for SUVs and pickups. (Two years ago the Bush Administration canceled a 2004 deadline for automakers to develop prototype cars that would get up to 80 miles per gallon and could be put into production within a few years.)

The Administration-backed bill gives the federal government new powers to condemn land for electric transmission lines - private property rights activists, where are you? - but just last year the Administration killed a standing requirement that home air conditioners must be 30 percent more energy efficient by 2006.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy says this energy bill would save less than 1 percent of the nation's projected energy consumption over 20 years.

This leaves exploitation as the remaining, dominant option. So much for recreation, scenic and environmental values.

Look out, Oregon! There may be oil derricks in your energy future.

Les AuCoin is an Ashland writer, professor and political commentator. He served for 18 years in the U.S. Congress and is a former majority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives. Email him at:


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