Monday, September 1, 2008

Drilling for Oil: Another Act in the Tragedy of the Commons

The whole issue of offshore drilling for oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean means the potential loss to others who enjoy and profit from the bounty of this common resource. The oceans of the earth are "commons" for all the peoples and shared by many nations. As with public lands within the continental borders, the U.S. has long understood that it can lease the ocean floors: that's what the offshore oil leasing program is all about.

From our British roots, this country has long utilized the concept of the commons. Even in the early years of the country, the colonists believed that the ocean, rivers and estuaries were open to all -- Native Americans, British and French traders, colonists -- to fish and to gather clams or oysters.

Although the seas were seen as common to all, by the 18th century, most nations came to recognize the sovereignty a country had over its territorial waters, defined as the the 12-miles from its shore. At the same time, the U.S. came to realize that its lands could be used for settlement, growth of the nation and profit.

In this same vein, the US now leases oil and gas exploration rights in the oceans -- it has been leasing in the Gulf of Mexico for some decades and also in the Pacific.

Now, the government through the Department of Interior may lift its decades-old moratorium on drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, opening the way for the granting of long term leases to oil and gas exploration companies.

This is another example of the loss of the commons. Currently, fishermen are free to fish in these areas. Even though they can still technically fish these areas after the oil and gas leases are in place, the impacts of these industries -- the pollution from mud drills and production waters -- will impact the fish that live in the Atlantic and the fishermen who catch them for our food and their profit.

If the politicians decide to lift the moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic, they will be bowing to public polls, not to rational arguments. (See "Gasoline Blues" below).

The true tragedy of the commons -- in classic terms -- is that as each party seeks to maximize profits by using it more, the finite commons, in this case the ocean (and yes, even the oceans are finite) will be ruined for all.

According to Garrett Hardin, the 1960s scientist who popularized this concept, the only solution to the tragedy is "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon." Hardin posits that social arrangements often do define responsibility and that in the case of the commons, society through its government needs to set the limits on the use of finite resources.

We the people need to urge the politicians to say no to lifting the moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. 100 Days of Oil estimated to be at stake is not worth the loss of yet another of Earth's finite commons. Sphere: Related Content

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