We are a nation prone to knee-jerk overreaction, short attention spans—and long memories. Not the best mix for long-term policy making and strategic thinking.
There is no question that the deep ocean oil spill and continuing environmental damage caused by the sinking of the Horizon oil platform is horrific. We may not know for years the depths of the damage—or the long-term costs to the environment and economy of a Gulf region still recovering from Hurricane Katrina nearing five years ago.
Since man first put fire to his use thousands of years ago, we have had a love/hate relationship with energy. Fire can burn you. Coal from fires in millions of London homes gave it the most polluted skies in the world at the dawn of the Industrial Age. And though I’m sure that a few readers of this column are working to reduce their carbon footprint as I type these words, I would wager that the vast majority of you are not willing to sacrifice your mobile phone, laptop, PC, flat screen TV or car tomorrow, to begin an end to our being an “energy dependent” society.
Overreaction to the potential melt-down of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Penn., in 1979, followed by the sensationalized movie The China Syndrome, created a political and regulatory climate that all but ended the development of nuclear power in the United States just over 30 years ago. Had we followed the path of Japan or France, who produce a majority of their electricity with nuclear generation, we would now have both lower carbon emissions and less dependence on imported foreign oil.
If we were able tomorrow to turn on thousands of wind turbines, solar panels and more hydro-power, we would not immediately decrease our need for oil. There are millions of cars, trucks, trains and other machines that run solely on gasoline or diesel fuels. There are also thousands of safely operating wells and drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico (not all owned or controlled by the United States or U.S.-owned enterprises) as well as off the coast of California. There are nearly 3,500 gulf wells representing a third of our current domestic supply of oil and natural gas.
And even if we capped every oil well and derrick offshore in waters surrounding the continental United States, we would not end the risk of oil spills. According to the National Academy of Sciences, roughly 62 percent of oil in U.S. waters, roughly 47 million gallons each year, is due to natural seepage from the ocean floor. The Exxon Valdez, by comparison, dumped a record 10.8 million gallons (260,000 barrels of oil) off the coast of Alaska in 1989. The majority of oil spills and leaks, like the Valdez, actually come from ships with leaks or that run aground, importing or transporting oil, as opposed to mining it. The last major offshore oil rig spill in the United States was 40 years ago, in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969. That blowout spilled 100,000 barrels of crude and an estimated 4.2 million gallons of oil along the California coastline. The resulting governmental and regulatory response from Congress and then-President Richard Nixon was to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
And since 1969, while U.S. oil consumption has surged, we now import nearly two-thirds of our crude oil supply. Our heavy energy dependency consumes roughly 25 percent of annual global oil production, while our comparative population to the rest of the planet remains in single digits.
Capping domestic or existing offshore wells, or not considering the addition of more only means greater dependence on foreign oil imports and greater exposure of our fragile economy to the whims of OPEC and the major oil producing countries half a world away, whose oil has to be brought in tankers to our shores, at considerably and statistically higher risk of accident and spills.
Let’s not allow media hype and its tendency to focus myopically on the Big Story to set the agenda or lead the formation of national energy policy. Our demand for a reliable and diverse range of fuel supplies is no different today than it was on April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon began it’s descent to the bottom of the sea 50 miles offshore. So while we will still need to “drill, baby, drill,” let’s also invest in additional technology and precautionary measures so that we don’t “spill, baby, spill,” and let’s not “cap, baby, cap.”
Bill Crane is a DeKalb County native and business owner, living in Scottdale, Georgia. He also serves as chief political analyst and commentator for 11Alive News and WSB Radio, News/Talk 750. Contact Bill Crane at Bill@dekalbchamp.com.