Much ado has been made of late, pro and con, about efforts by President Bush and many Republican lawmakers to open U.S. offshore continental shelf areas and parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Environmental organizations are dead set against it, many Democrats are fighting it, and even Republican presidential candidate John McCain has opposed drilling in the ANWR, although party leaders hope to change his position if he’s elected president.

Polls show Americans overwhelmingly (almost 70 percent) favor the drilling, and slightly more than half of respondents believe it would bring a reduction in gasoline prices within a year.

The federal Energy Information Agency paints a different picture, though, estimating drilling in the disputed areas would increase the world’s daily oil output by only about 0.2 percent, which might reduce the price of gasoline just 3 cents to 4 cents a gallon. Further, the EIA says it would take 10 years before any oil would start flowing and almost 20 years to realize the projected per gallon savings.

By which time, one would fervently hope, this nation and the world would have finally begun moving away from oil and toward other forms of energy.

Still, when one considers the United States has failed for the 35 years since the Arab oil embargo to develop and stick with alternative energy development programs, or to seriously contemplate a worst case scenario of major long term interruptions of imported oil, or to encourage meaningful energy conservation programs, the reality is that our need for oil will likely continue for years.

The big question in expansion of drilling offshore and in the ANWR is not, despite all the shouting, whether it will result in major environmental harm. Oil drilling has been going on in the Gulf of Mexico and in Alaska for decades with no documented significant impact on the environment.

Oil platforms in the gulf coexist with marine life; in fact, fisherman say some of the best catches are around the rigs. More than 400 wells are drilled yearly in the gulf, over 30,000 total, with no documented long term environmental impact. The oil companies have been at it long enough to know how to make the rigs environmentally safe. They are all too aware of the black eye they get from any oil spill.

Most major oil spills that have resulted in significant environmental harm have occurred in the transportation process — tankers running aground, barges colliding with bridges or other vessels, pipeline ruptures, etc. Even during major hurricanes such as Katrina and Gustav, drilling operations in the gulf have caused no oil contamination, though rigs themselves may have been heavily damaged.

The overriding issue in offshore drilling is not so much environmental (drilling anywhere entails risk) or how much the additional oil will contribute to this country’s energy demands. Rather, it is economic: Will the oil companies invest the billions of dollars required to get oil 10 years down the road that may or may not be as much in demand as today, or worth as much?

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com