After BP oil spill, is it time to abandon offshore drilling?
Filling in for my colleague Ezra Klein, Mother Jones’s Kate Sheppard condemns President Obama’s continuing commitment to domestic offshore oil and gas drilling. She argues that offshore drilling won’t appreciably enhance America’s energy security, because there’s just not enough oil under U.S. waters to make a large dent in imports. So why bother?
But refusing to drill here doesn’t mean that offshore drilling doesn’t happen. It just happens elsewhere, where oversight is perhaps even more lax and from which crude must be transported in vulnerable oil tankers. Nigeria, for one, has seen a major oil spill every year since 1969, according to the New America Foundation’s Lisa Margonelli. The net effect of closing down American offshore drilling, observes The Economist’s Lexington columnist, is probably even more pollution. It’s arrogant of Americans to continue to consume vast amounts of oil while refusing to take on any of the inevitable environmental risk, instead exporting that risk to countries ruled by regimes that care rather less about the environment.
Perhaps anticipating this objection, Sheppard argues that America can do a lot more to reduce oil consumption and, therefore, imports by promoting efficiency. True. But we’d still be consuming and importing huge amounts of oil, making that point irrelevant. Indeed, a recent study from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs estimates that aggressive CAFE standards, tax credits for the purchase of fuel-sipping cars and even a reasonable carbon price would do little to U.S. net oil imports for the transportation sector and light-duty vehicle miles traveled compared to a baseline scenario. Adding a much higher gas tax on top of a carbon price -- which I favor -- would make a much larger dent. But even if the government did all of these things -- a truly optimistic policy scenario -- America would still import over 6 million barrels of oil a day for transportation in 2030.
Don’t get me wrong -- I hate that we have to extract, transport, refine and burn this nasty stuff, every step of the way exposing the environment to perhaps catastrophic danger. But we can’t wish this addiction away. We will probably have to deal with it for decades. What the BP spill teaches us is that oil companies and regulators became complacent about deep-water offshore drilling after decades without a major spill off American shores, and that oversight must be reformed -- dramatically. It also tells us that the sooner Congress passes a real, comprehensive energy bill that begins to wean America off carbon, the better.
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