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Thinking ahead on the oil spill


New America's Lisa Margonelli has a great piece in the New York Times thinking ahead to the likely consequences of the likely consequences of the oil spill. The obvious next step, she says, is a moratorium on offshore drilling. But that'll only mean a moratorium on American offshore drilling. And that'll push production to places with much worse safety records:

All oil comes from someone’s backyard, and when we don’t reduce the amount of oil we consume, and refuse to drill at home, we end up getting people to drill for us in Kazakhstan, Angola and Nigeria — places without America’s strong environmental safeguards or the resources to enforce them.

Kazakhstan, for one, had no comprehensive environmental laws until 2007, and Nigeria has suffered spills equivalent to that of the Exxon Valdez every year since 1969. (As of last year, Nigeria had 2,000 active spills.) Since the Santa Barbara spill of 1969, and the more than 40 Earth Days that have followed, Americans have increased by two-thirds the amount of petroleum we consume in our cars, while nearly quadrupling the quantity we import. Effectively, we’ve been importing oil and exporting spills to villages and waterways all over the world.

And keep in mind that this is a very small disaster in comparison to the devastation that could follow a 5 degree jump in global temperatures, and yet it's things like offshore drilling -- that is to say, increased access to and consumption of fossil fuels -- that's hastening radical climate change. The dangers of offshore drilling didn't seem real until they became real, and now we're talking moratorium. But if we wait for climate change to really get going before we do something about it, it'll be far beyond the point when we can stop it just by pricing carbon. It's like one of those horror movie taglines: If you can see him, it's already too late.

Photo credit: By Carlos Barria/Reuters

By Ezra Klein  |  May 3, 2010; 11:16 AM ET
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"Effectively, we’ve been importing oil and exporting spills to villages and waterways all over the world."

That's the efficiency of the free market at work. Although I don't think a moratorium on offshore drilling is the first logical step. Rather, I would think new regulations on offshore drilling is the first logical step. Has anyone of any consequence been calling for an across the board moratorium on offshore drilling?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 3, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Great post. I've often thought that we're simply externalizing the costs of drilling to some poor part of the world. Of course, carbon in the atmosphere will affect us anywhere- in poorest regions worst though.

Should we have dolphin/shrimp/etc-safe oil? Imagine choosing your gasoline based on how safely it was extracted.

In the meantime, how about getting a bunch of those huge levee pumps that're used to keep NOLA from sinking into the sea, floating them on some barges and connecting them to a supertanker (80M gal capacity) to suck up the slick? Basically, they need to build a process that can handle contaminated water faster than it's being produced.

Posted by: Lonepine | May 3, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

"That's the efficiency of the free market at work."
Except it's not the free market that's been doing it.

Posted by: tl_houston | May 3, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

ever since the carter administration, we have known the need for energy independence.
but look at the society we have built. everything using huge resources of energy.
do we go to nuclear energy and risk another chernobyl?
or do we blow the tops off of our mountain chains and contaminate our land and rivers?
risk the lives of miners in these caverns of the dinosaurs, truly?
or depend on oil rigs in other parts of the fragile ocean, with even less oversight?
the icebergs are calving, the seas have islands of floating garbage, we dont know what to do with our nuclear and toxic waste, now the oil that we are pumping is being expelled into
the algae, the coral colonies....the rain forests are being burnt down.....
.........we have created a culture in which everything we do takes energy.....devours resources, from a fragile planet.

maybe the planet cant support the kind of life that human beings are creating for thermselves.
maybe the whole thing isnt supposed to be this way.
.......when i just saw a sea turtle being pulled out of the water, covered with oil, motionless and just wonder.
maybe the kind of life, and the direction of our society, on a smallish, gemlike planet, is just not sustainable, ultimately, in the direction we have taken it.

Posted by: jkaren | May 3, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Great. Take this to it's logical extreme, and we should ban drilling off the coasts of Red States, who don't seem to give a toss about regulation, and only drill off Blue States, where people seem concerned about regulation.

Posted by: antontuffnell | May 3, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Credit where credit is due: last week, the administration cleared wind power off the cost of Massachusetts.

This seems a much better idea for offshore energy than the incredibly risky oil drilling.

Especially when it appears we're committed to drilling in the stupidest way imaginable, gambling the entire coastal economy on whether or not foreign oil companies are going to cut corners as they "self-regulate."

Seriously, we're choosing that over big windmills?

Posted by: theorajones1 | May 3, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

dear president obama

for the sake of the american people, please hold an emergency primetime press conference on the oil rig disaster tonight.
please have secretary salazar and chu with you, and the head of homeland security as well. it is imperative that the american people connect with you and your leadership at this time.
(even though i dont think anyone has a clue what to do)
this is going to affect the environmental and economic wellbeing of our country.
people need to hear from you, understand what exactly happened, know what is being done, and what the accountability of british petroleum is at this time.
please speak to all of us as soon as possible.
thank you.

Posted by: jkaren | May 3, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Yup, Ezra, you're right, and probably more right than you would like to be. We have allowed *all* of our health and welfare regulatory power to be evaded, largely by multinationals, through the mechanisms of globalization and free trade.

So here are the logical conclusions:

1. US must establish drilling standards WW.
2. US must adopt carbon tax or cap regime and carbon tax all imported goods.
3. US must inspect all food at point of importation, to FDA standards.
4. US must not sign any free trade agreements, and for existing ones, establish minimum labor, environmental and energy usage standards or compensatory import tax system.

Are you really ready to support all that? I am, but I don't spend part of every day defending evasion of our laws as a "pro-free-trade-Liberal."

Posted by: Dollared | May 3, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

"Although I don't think a moratorium on offshore drilling is the first logical step. Rather, I would think new regulations on offshore drilling is the first logical step. Has anyone of any consequence been calling for an across the board moratorium on offshore drilling?"

Well, Candidate Obama told us that he believed that the benefits in allowing new offshore exploration were too insignificant to offset the envirnomental damage and the risks of disaster.

This would be a good time for him to do what Bush had such difficulty doing -- admit that he made a mistake (in ordering that new offshore drilling could take place contrary to his campaign position), advise us that he regrets changing his mind and that he now sees that his initial position was correct, and that his Administration will step up efforts to develop and deploy clean and sustainable energy alternatives.

Just like Three Mile Island effectively stopped nuclear power for decades, this accident will forestall permits for new drilling anyway, the only question is whether Obama will sieze the opportunity to show leadership in boldly defining the problem and make real policy changes going forward.

I can't agree that "new regulations on offshore drilling is the first logical step." New regulations will of course come to pass after the inevitable congressional hearings, but the real lesson here is that any technology can fail, no matter how good or how well-regulated that technology might be.

If the costs of a failure are greater than the benefits of success, the first logical step is to place a moratorium upon the activity itself.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 3, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Here in New Orleans, we expect the Gummint to screw us cause we are just poor folks. too many blacks for anyone to care. now that BP has showed how it's money that matters, we will see a lot of PR to counter the effects of Katrina type PR.
otherwise everything else will remain the same.
america likes our oil and gas, for the last 80 years or so, we have been sending our oil and gas to the rest of the country.
this is just one more example of how money is the only thing that matters.

you'd think enough people would demand alternative to oil and gas by now, but the money that bought Obama the White HOuse is going to keep us on our path to self immolation/bankruptcy by doing the same old same old.

be prepared for more oil spills, ash spills, mine cave ins, bridge collapses. '

there is money to spend on more drilling but not alternative.

Drill baby Drill. thank you Caribou Barbie, you were never more right!

Posted by: Beleck31 | May 3, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

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