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Editor’s Note: Welcome to The Conservationist_, a new blog on_ FieldandStream.com_, where at least three times per week we’ll be posting conservation news, analysis, and commentary from Conservation Columnist Bob Marshall, Contributing Editor Hal Herring, and Deputy Editor Jay Cassell._

So what does President Obama’s decision to open once-protected areas of our coasts to energy drilling mean for fish, wildlife and sportsmen?

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It could be terrible. It could be bad. Or it might not matter much at all.

The Terrible: If this derails the push for meaningful carbon reduction legislation, it will be a black mark on his presidency, and a disaster for fish and wildlife and sportsmen.

There is no greater threat to our outdoor pursuits than global warming, and the major cause of that problem is the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere, primarily from fossil fuels. There are alternative fuels, but the only way to encourage development and use of those fuels is to place a penalty on the production of carbon. That’s what cap and trade is all about.

Even the energy industry agrees the known untapped sources in these offshore areas can’t make a serious dent in our needs. During the Bush Administration, the federal Energy Information Agency said the impact on prices would be “negligible”- and even that wouldn’t happen for 30 years. But the longer the nation believes we have a ready supply of cheap carbon-emitting fuels, the longer it will resist converting to cleaner technologies. No pain, no gain.

There is also fear this could lead us on a slippery slope. By opening these previously protected areas off the coasts, the administration will be faced with this question: If the energy emergency means those pristine oceans off the east coast must be sacrificed, why should the Rocky Mountain front be any different?

Throwing our petrol patriots a bone has never slated their thirst in the past.

The Bad: As a lifelong resident of coastal Louisiana, which supports 4,000 oil and gas platforms – the largest such concentration in the world – I think I can speak with some authority on the impacts of offshore drilling.

The first thing to understand is that the most obvious risk is not the most serious.

While the nation this week has been gripped by photos of a rig that exploded, likely killing at least 11 workers and now pumping untold gallons of crude into the Gulf, such disasters are the rare exception to the rule in offshore drilling. Certainly the risks are great in any such event; we’ll have to wait to see how much damage this does to the coastal estuaries and beaches, if any. But if tightly regulated, constantly watched and slapped with crippling fines when it breaks the rules, the offshore energy industry can be safe and have very little impact on fish and wildlife.

However, when allowed to bully a state, this industry can do horrendous damage, most of which takes place onshore. This includes a deep and lasting disruption to both natural and social infrastructure by the on-shore component of development such as transmission pipelines, canal dredging, refineries, and port facilities.

Since permitting was required in the 1970s, as much as 10,000 miles of pipelines were dredged for oil and gas work through our coastal marshes. No one has an accurate count of how many miles were dredged before that, but some experts think it was at least as many.

Louisiana’s coastal estuaries – the largest and most productive in the lower 48, an ecosystem that 90 percent of all Gulf marine species depend on and that is important to 70 percent of the continent’s migratory waterfowl – has been reduced by 2,000 square miles in 70 years, and experts believe almost 40 percent of that loss can be attributed to oil and gas industry impacts.

Did that have to happen?

No. But efforts to force the energy industry to be more environmentally sensitive were defeated under heavy industry lobbying.

There are much greener ways to develop offshore energy than what happened in Louisiana. But sportsmen in states now facing this challenge should be prepared to hear from the petro-patriots that all those environmental safeguards are just too expensive. Let them win that argument, and your fish and wildlife habitat and quality of life will suffer greatly.

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