HACKENSACK, N.J. – The specter of an oil spill ruining New Jersey beaches is keeping state officials from even considering the potential benefits of what could be vast supplies of natural gas discovered nearly three decades ago about 90 miles off Atlantic City.

The discovery was not exploited at the time because prices were too low to justify costly pipelines and platforms. Then in 1982, Congress banned all drilling in the Atlantic.

Now Congress is under pressure to revisit the ban because of the recent spike in gasoline prices. Even though opening new areas to oil drilling would not produce additional gasoline for as much as a decade, public support for drilling is growing: A recent poll by Monmouth University found 56 percent of New Jersey adults supported drilling for oil or gas off the state’s coastline.

The chairman of the geology department at Rutgers University, Kenneth Miller, said maintaining the ban on drilling is “not based on rational thought.” Miller said the threat from an oil spill damaging beaches from 90 miles out to sea – about 70 miles past the horizon that can be seen from shore – is overblown given modern technology. The danger becomes even more remote if drilling for gas, which dissipates if it reaches the surface, he said.

But opponents of drilling, including New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, the state’s two U.S. senators and many Republican congressmen, feel it’s impossible to separate drilling for gas from drilling for oil, and any threat to the state’s tourism-reliant shore area is just not worth it.

As a result, the state is not even considering whether offshore natural gas should be part of the state’s long-term energy picture – even as it considers allowing offshore platforms that could receive natural gas brought by tankers from Africa or the Caribbean.

Indeed, one of the architects of the recently issued Draft New Jersey Energy Master Plan was unaware that just five test wells dug in the late ’70s and early ’80’s found enough gas supplies to heat nearly 150,000 North Jersey homes.

“The governor remains opposed to offshore drilling for both oil and natural gas as both of these activities can result in the same negative environmental impacts that could seriously threaten New Jersey’s tourism industry, and both of them have limited benefits in terms of what’s available,” said Corzine spokesman Jim Gardner.

Sen. Bob Menendez has given several floor speeches in the Senate in recent weeks in which he pointed to poster-sized photos of oil slicks surrounding hurricane-damaged drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico to bolster his arguments against offshore drilling.

Miller said basing opposition to drilling on the fear of a spill makes little sense because New Jersey beaches are already at risk from spills from tankers carrying Middle East oil to the tank farms and refineries that line the New Jersey Turnpike. Two spills from those facilities did close some Sandy Hook beaches in the early 1990s.

Menendez counters that no one is saying drilling guarantees a spill would occur.

“But disasters have happened before, and they’ll happen again,” he said.

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