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Posted at 11:45 AM ET, 12/ 9/2010

Slow offshore drilling? Bravo, Obama

By Peter Galuszka

The moaning was loud last week when President Obama banned offshore oil drilling on the East Coast until 2017.

Politicians of both parties, from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.,) to Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), decried the move.

"It demonstrates a complete lack of confidence in [industry's] ability to fix the problems experienced in the gulf spill, and no confidence in the ability of the U.S. government to better plan for and react to offshore emergencies," McDonnell said in a statement. The governor's grand plans to push ahead with offshore drilling and gain revenue that would help ease Virginia's massive transportation problems have been squashed more than once.

Obama's decision, of course, comes after the Deepwater Horizon disaster last spring and summer, the worst environmental predicament ever faced in the United States. Some Virginians had hoped for a 2012 lease sale to exploit oil reserves that may or may not be out there.

Now comes the Wall Street Journal, not exactly an environmentalist rag, with a front-page story that there has been a rash of close calls with offshore oil rigs over the past two years, after decades of improving safety records. The Journal reviewed the records of the countries with the most experience with offshore drilling. In Britain, serious incidents involving North Sea rigs rose 39 percent. Australia likewise experienced a spike, including a near blowout akin to Deepwater Horizon. Incidents have risen 48 percent in Norway since 2008.

Why? The Journal says that there's a mad rush to deepwater offshore drilling because oil in shallower waters is running out. Yet there aren't enough experienced workers to handle the extra difficulties of drilling in water depths of a mile or more. Spotty enforcement and the demand for profits also complicate deepwater drilling.

Experts say that that disasters such as Deepwater Horizon are "low probability" but "high consequence." "This accident was bound to happen," says Nancy Leveson, an expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the BP Deepwater mess.

The problem with people such as McDonnell and Cantor, and to some extent Warner, is that they never seem to go beyond consulting with oil industry lobbyists when it comes to the dangers of drilling. Or they use data without much thought. McDonnell, for instance, has cited an Old Dominion University report on the supposed economic benefits of drilling. But the author of that report says it was a quickie job and shouldn't be taken seriously.

Virginia has much to lose in the event of an offshore rig disaster. Other industries and institutions (real ones) that would be affected include seafood, commercial shipping and the military. All have questioned the need for drilling when it isn't even clear the reserves are out there.

At least Obama has the sense to slow down the parade to offshore drilling.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon's Rebellion . The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Peter Galuszka  | December 9, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  Chesapeake Bay, HotTopic, Local blog network, Va. Politics, Virginia, development, economy, energy, environment, taxes, tourism, traffic, transportation, wildlife  
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