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opinion

As the only country in the world to embargo its own offshore oil and gas reserves, America's reliance on imported oil can be regarded as strictly voluntary. U.S. rights to the Outer Continental Shelf encompass 1.7 billion acres of submerged public land. Either by congressional or presidential order, more than 97 per cent of this land has been embargoed for almost three decades: no exploration, no drilling. By conservative calculation, the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf holds 86 billion barrels of crude oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas - enough oil to eliminate imports from OPEC countries for 159,259 days. (The U.S. imports 540,000 barrels of OPEC crude oil a day.)

Thomas Pyle, president of the Washington-based Institute for Energy Research, puts the American restraint this way: "Canada drills for oil in the Atlantic to the north of us. Cuba, Brazil and Venezuela drill for oil in the Atlantic to the south of us. Russia drills for oil in the Pacific to the west of us. Yet, America, the most technologically advanced nation in the world, with the most stringent environmental policies in the world, is the only country that prohibits domestic oil production."

It's worse than Mr. Pyle suggests. Cuba has signed agreements with China and Russia to permit these countries to drill for oil in the Florida Straits within 60 kilometres of Key West - in other words, within sight. Hypothetically, with a sufficiently extended horizontal drilling operation, the Cubans could tap American oil and export it to the United States.

When President Barack Obama announced that he favoured drilling in parts of the Outer Continental Shelf, he was widely portrayed as taking a controversial, courageous step toward ending U.S. reliance on imported oil. Ironically, Mr. Obama actually restored the moratorium (or, at least, a good part of it). George W. Bush revoked the executive ban on drilling in most of the shelf (instituted by his father in 1990) in July of 2008; Congress permitted its legislated ban (instituted in 1981) to expire that September.

Mr. Obama simply restored the executive moratorium on large tracts of the shelf - tracts containing vast oil reserves. In restoring the embargo on offshore drilling off Alaska, for instance, he cancelled five exploration agreements with oil companies, one zone of which holds 77 billion barrels of crude oil, more than twice America's proven oil reserves (30 billion barrels).

Much of the drilling already under way is taking place in the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental hazard of offshore drilling should be apparent by now, what with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Although the storm destroyed oil and gas platforms, it produced no significant oil spills and broke no submerged pipelines. The U.S. Interior Department, incidentally, calculates a Gulf of Mexico "spill rate" of 0.001 per cent of oil production - far, far less than the normal seepage of oil into the world's oceans by natural processes. The U.S. National Academy of Science says 62 per cent of the oil found in marine environments comes from natural seepage through the ocean floor, 1 per cent from oil and gas production. (The rest comes from the use - not production - of oil and gas.)

In 1969, there was a huge blowout at a Union Oil drill site 10 kilometres off Santa Barbara. In 11 days, the blowout spewed 200,000 gallons of oil. Ocean tides carried the guck, along with dying seabirds, seals and dolphins, to the shore - where thousands of people tended to them as best they could. The first Earth Day followed in the next year - on April 22, 40 years ago. The comprehensive moratorium on offshore drilling followed a few years later.

But the moratorium did not save Santa Barbara from guck. Located near a natural ocean-floor seepage site called the Monterey Foundation, Santa Barbara sits alongside a huge reservoir of crude oil. Scientists say the Monterey Foundation has leaked 800 million barrels of oil in the past 10,000 years; it has another billion barrels to go. This reservoir could now be easily and safely drained. The paradox is profound. The U.S. is content to use offshore oil from any other country on Earth.

In fact, good environmental reasons exist for offshore drilling - among them the success of the Rigs for Reefs program in the Gulf of Mexico. Operated by Minerals Management Service, the federal agency responsible for offshore energy production, Rigs for Reefs sinks obsolete platforms and turns them into sanctuaries for fish. Within a year of a sinking, a single platform is host to as many as 20,000 fish. Rigs for Reefs has turned hundreds of old rigs into refuges where - the scientists who monitor them insist - fish find a place to relax amid ocean currents that never rest.