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Don't use oil spill as excuse to deep-six domestic drilling


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Our view on energy: Don't use oil spill as excuse to deep-six domestic drilling

Updated 13h 25m ago

The easy thing to do after the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would be to kill President Obama's shiny new plan to expand offshore drilling. Many formerly pro-drilling coastal politicians, from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, are calling for doing just that.

OPPOSING VIEW: Halt offshore exploration

But parochial interests and short-term thinking are the traditional ruin of U.S. energy policy.

Decades of refusal to expand domestic drilling, or make gasoline more expensive, have left the nation addicted to foreign oil. As pretty much everyone knows by now, this is an invisible, slow-motion disaster that transfers tens of billions of dollars a year to unfriendly regimes and leaves the nation vulnerable to wars and oil shocks.

Meanwhile, decades of refusal to build more nuclear plants, or deal with the waste disposal issue, since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island have left the U.S. overly dependent on electricity from coal that is dangerous to mine and contributes to climate change.

So as nice as it would be to halt oil exploration along the coastline or in the Alaskan wilderness, years of feckless energy policy have forfeited that luxury. The question now isn't whether to drill, but how to do so more safely, particularly in deep water, while developing clean-energy replacements such as wind, solar and biofuels.

If only that were easy or quick. Alternative energy provides about 6% of transportation fuel. The Energy Information Administration forecasts that 25 years from now, it will provide about 15%. Even if that doubled or tripled, the nation would still need substantial quantities of oil.

About one-third of U.S. oil production comes from the Gulf. Curbing or killing the plan to expand offshore drilling would take off the table an estimated 40 billion to 60 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil — about six to eight years of U.S. consumption at current rates. That oil is needed to help reduce imports and bridge to a time when more planes, trains and automobiles can run on alternative fuels. Currently, of the nearly 250 million cars and trucks on American roads, only about 700,000 run on alternative fuels. Phasing out gasoline-powered vehicles is going to be a long, slow process.

Being stuck with petroleum for now, however, doesn't mean pursuing a heedless "drill, baby, drill" policy. The Gulf of Mexico disaster exposed the oil industry's failure to anticipate, and develop a robust response to, a deep-sea blowout.

True, this is the first serious drilling-related spill in U.S. waters since the one off Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969.But when BP executives say they never could have imagined the sort of accident that occurred nearly three weeks ago in the Gulf, an assertion repeated at Tuesday's finger-pointing congressional hearing into the spill, they are either misinformed or ignorant about their business.

An industry study documented more than 100 cases of blowout-preventer failures in just two years in the 1990s— none as serious as this one, but warning signs nonetheless. Worse, a catastrophic failure in foreign waters should have sounded alarm bells. In 1979, a blowout preventer failed to cut the flow of oil at a Mexican offshore well near the Yucatan Peninsula. That one took about 295 days to control and spilled 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. (An estimated 4 million gallons have spilled from the Deepwater Horizon accident.)

Before offshore drilling expands, the industry should have to show that it is far better prepared than BP was to deal with accidents, and the government must beef up its oversight. On Tuesday, the administration announced plans to split the Minerals Management Services into one unit to enforce safety rules and a second unit to collect royalties. That would help eliminate the conflict of interest between the agency's dual missions, much as was necessary with federal oversight of the airline industry.

Just as one plane crash doesn't mean that the nation should stop building jetliners and airports, one horrific spill can't be allowed to dictate energy policy for decades. The nation needs the oil. But it can learn from the mess in the Gulf to minimize the chances of anything like it happening again.


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