Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spill, Baby, Spill

In the last presidential election, the idea of expanded domestic offshore oil and gas exploration seemed like a slam dunk to Republicans. And a few weeks ago, in order to hold out a carrot to Republicans to get them to sign on to his domestic energy agenda, Obama said that he would open up offshore drilling. Since the offer came from a Democratic president, we heard a deafening silence from the left. Outspoken opponents were a minority.

The horrific Gulf of Mexico oil spill has changed everything. Eleven lives were lost, and the environmental consequences are already dire. The potential for worse is frightening.

At a hearing yesterday in the House Energy & Commerce Committee about dependence on foreign oil, there was a lot of talk about reducing American dependence on oil imports. But where you might have expected lawmakers to make reference to offshore oil production, it was almost like the option never existed. A few members were focusing on containing the spill and preventing a coastal disaster – but most did not say a word.

The widening oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico will complicate the politics of offshore drilling. It looks like proposals to expand oil and natural gas production on the outer continental shelf will be shelved.

The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig and the estimated 210,000 gallons of oil gushing daily from an underwater well into Gulf of Mexico waters are providing fresh meat for congressional foes of offshore drilling. They have seized on the disaster as evidence that offshore drilling threatens the environment, human life, fishing industries and coastal states' tourism dollars. On the Senate floor, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) hauled out photos of the Gulf oil spill, warning that a similar accident along the Atlantic Seaboard could be just as catastrophic:

"This is all happening as a result of a spill and a fire from the most technologically advanced rig in the world," Cardin said, challenging his party's President on the idea of new offshore drilling. "I urge my colleagues to take a look at what happened off the Gulf of Mexico."

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) said, "The potential disaster looming in the Gulf of Mexico could devastate....economically crucial species such as snapper, grouper, red fish, mackerel, oysters, shrimp, crab, and wildlife populations and their habitats, as well as the tourism and recreational businesses that rely on the Gulf." Senator Shelby was one of those who believed in “Drill, baby, drill.” Now he is singing a different tune.

President Obama has already indicated that he views this spill as a warning about offshore drilling – that it is not as safe as he had been told it was. He is saying that this disaster will cause him to rethink offshore lease proposals and plans for expanded drilling.

The success of the massive recovery and containment mission now under way will influence the future of offshore drilling. It will depend on how bad this gets. If this drags out for months and oil starts affecting local businesses that rely on marine life, it is not just an issue of environmental costs. It also becomes an issue of economic costs.

If the spill stays offshore, the well gets plugged, and everything is fine, then it all goes away because Americans have a short memory. “Drill, baby, drill’ will once again become a slogan in 2012. If this spill turns into an environmental and economic disaster for Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, then new action in Congress on offshore drilling will be put on the back burner for a long time to come. And we will not hear “Drill, baby, drill” again.

Oh, and for those who insist that nuclear energy is safe because we now have “improved” automatic safeguards, here’s your proof that safeguards fail. The fail-safe system and back-up system on this rig both failed. There was no acoustic shutoff valve installed. The WSJ reports that the Minerals section of the Department of Interior recommended that the acoustic shutoff valves not be required on deep-water rigs because they’re too expensive. What? This nightmare is cheaper?

Now the new slogan is “Spill, baby, spill.”