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Volatile Fuel Prices Shift Off-shore Drilling Debate

The past year's volatile gas prices are impacting the ongoing debate on whether to drill for oil off the coasts of Virginia and California. Spencer Michels reports on how the price swings and new technology are affecting the controversy.

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    Now, technology and off-shore drilling. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our Science Unit report.

    SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour correspondent: This is the coast off Santa Barbara, California, where 20 off-shore oil platforms churn out 65,000 barrels of oil every day.

    When gas prices were high, the political pressure to drill off-shore for oil here and elsewhere was intense. As a result, Congress put an end to a 26-year ban on off-shore oil exploration.

    When the cost at the pump declined, so did the pressure to drill. But oil prices are volatile, and so new drilling off-shore remains a distinct possibility off Santa Barbara and perhaps off the coast of Virginia.

    That's because in November the U.S. Minerals Management Service announced it was taking the first steps to accept bids for off-shore oil leases off Virginia. The oil industry says there's a lot more they could find in several spots, including near Santa Barbara.

    But talk of new wells upsets environmentalists. They've been fighting against off-shore drilling for decades. They still point to a 1969 accident below an off-shore platform six miles off Santa Barbara. It created a spill so devastating that, 11 years later, Congress enacted the moratorium on new drilling.

    Now, 40 years later, that spill is still influencing national policy.


    You couldn't really walk here because of the thickness of the oil.


    Charlie Eckberg, who today is a real estate agent and a member of Get Oil Out, or GOO, was a student in 1969 who volunteered to clean oily birds on Santa Barbara beach.


    You saw the death in regard to the water fowl that had been caught in the oil and could not clean themselves. They essentially all died.

    The waves were heavy with oil so that you didn't hear the waves. It was just this — this silence of the black coming in. It was ugly, ugly, ugly.


    The spill turned Eckberg and thousands of others into environmentalists who successfully lobbied Congress to ban off-shore drilling.


    Out of that circumstance came some of the most significant environmental issues, Clean Air, Clean Water Act, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Earth Day was a result of it.