As the oil in the Gulf of Mexico moves toward the Louisiana and Florida coasts, the left is already demanding that President Obama reverse his baby steps toward more offshore drilling. The Administration has partly obliged, declaring a moratorium pending an investigation. The President has raised the political temperature himself, declaring yesterday that the spill is a "massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."
The harm will be considerable, which is why it is fortunate that such spills are so rare. The most recent spill of this magnitude was the Exxon Valdez tanker accident in 1989. The largest before that was the Santa Barbara offshore oil well leak in 1969.
The infrequency of big spills is extraordinary considering the size of the offshore oil industry that provides Americans with affordable energy. According to the Interior Department's most recent data, in 2002 the Outer Continental Shelf had 4,000 oil and gas facilities, 80,000 workers in offshore and support activities, and 33,000 miles of pipeline. Between 1985 and 2001, these offshore facilities produced seven billion barrels of oil. The spill rate was a minuscule 0.001%.
According to the National Academy of Sciences—which in 2002 completed the third version of its "Oil in the Sea" report—only 1% of oil discharges in North Americas are related to petroleum extraction. Some 62% of oil in U.S. waters is due to natural seepage from the ocean floor, putting 47 million gallons of crude oil into North American water every year. The Gulf leak is estimated to have leaked between two million and three million gallons in two weeks.
...As for a drilling moratorium, it is no guarantee against oil spills. It may even lead to more of them. Political fantasies about ending our oil addiction notwithstanding, the U.S. economy will need oil and other fossil fuels for decades to come. If we don't drill for it at home, the oil will have to arrive by tanker and barges. Tankers are responsible for more spills than offshore wells, and those spills tend to be bigger and closer to shore—which usually means more environmental harm.
Comment: The wailing at liberal blogs regarding this horrible accident has, of course, reached its expected perfervid pitch. And I see the usual cavil arguments about a de-regulated oil industry prompted by George W. Bush prevented the use of an acoustic switch which would have prevented all of this mess. All of this is of course unfounded. Some countries do mandate the use of an acoustic switch (Norway, Brazil) and some do not (U.K.). U.S. regulators decided against the use of the switches because of cost and reliability issues. I tried to point out to one guy that all the acoustic switch does is set off the more central blowout preventer remotely and that subs had tried to activate the blowout preventer manually with no success which means that the acoustic switch may not have mattered one way or another. The blowout preventer is malfunctioning. He was not impressed with my argument but instead deleted my post. Classy.
I also made the following observation at other blogs when liberal bloggers were quick to jump on the "drill, baby, drill" crowd and their point on how safe off-shore drilling is: When an airliner tragically crashes and kills everyone aboard, does anyone suggest that society should revert back to ocean liners to get from, let’s say, Boston to London? No. When there is a pile up of cars where passengers are killed, does anyone suggest that society revert to the alternative of horse and buggy? No. Accidents happen even in a perfect world and no reasonable person is going to revert to a lower standard of living because of the threat of the odd incident. So why is oil held to a different standard than other technologies?
Oil is utilized in some form in every stage of production for a constellation of goods. How are you going to make medical devices, medicine, fertilizer, parts for vehicles, etc. without petroleum? Our economy would come to a standstill without it.
There are almost 4,000 oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico that have been operating for years without an accident of this magnitude. This event is a clear outlier in an industry that has done a remarkable job with safety.
The usual argument I read at some liberal blogs is that we need to reduce our consumption of oil so that we don't have to drill as much. I find it astonishing that anyone could believe that this is possible with a growing population and a growing (I hope) economy. Even Denmark which is held up as a wind-mill utopia by liberals has INCREASED its off-shore drilling aggressively and its IMPORT OF COAL in order to meet rising demands. Additionally the Danes have to live with some of the most expensive gas and electricity prices in the world. And that's with very little population growth (just slightly above zero) compared to the U.S. Between 1998 and 2008, the Danish population grew by just 200,000 people. During the same time period, the U.S. population grew by 33 million people. So, I find it shocking that anyone would believe that we could "conserve" our way to less oil consumption.
Trust me, if the U.S. stops its off-shore drilling, countries like Denmark, Norway, Brazil, the U.K., China and others, are going to continue to expand and to be aggressive with their off-shore programs and we will have to depend on them to supply us and the rest of the world.