Dancing with the (Oily) Devil

Have you noticed that the incessant TV commercials trumpeting America’s oil and gas industry have vanished recently?  Perhaps the industry stopped wanting to remind us that we’re all addicted.

Every addiction, whether to heroin, meth, alcohol, tobacco, gambling, sugary drinks or gasoline, takes a toll.  Oil could be America’s most costly addiction.  The BP Gulf of Mexico spill tells us that it’s time to enter rehab.

Around 1900 our country embraced gasoline-powered vehicles and started drilling for oil in the ocean.  We got high on automobility, the euphoria of going wherever we wanted.  Automobility allowed us to build sprawling suburbs far from our jobs, and to truck goods thousands of miles from origins to consumers.  But oil’s cost is greater than its price.  Leaded gasoline harmed kids’ brains until we banned it.  Carbon dioxide from burning coal and oil drives global overheating and ocean acidification.  We’ve exported trillions of dollars to both our Canadian and Mexican friends and to petrodictators in Venezuela and Iran, whose governments hate us.  This doesn’t include what America spends defending oil-producing countries and sea lanes.  Now, in the Gulf of Mexico, amid the world’s densest concentration of offshore oil platforms, we’re seeing another cost of our addiction.

Just before Earth Day, the Deepwater Horizon, a gigantic state-of-the-art offshore semisubmersible drill rig working for BP exploded, killing 11 people.  It burned, sank and began gushing huge amounts of oil into the ocean.  Thoughtful observers knew that it was only a matter of time before that would happen.  Just last year there was a disastrous oil drilling blowout and spill in the Timor Sea between Australia and Indonesia.  If it weren’t for an organization appropriately called SkyTruth, Americans would not have heard about it.  But we overlooked the warning sign.  Now that’s harder to do:  Oil is gushing off our own coast.

America’s colossal spill wasn’t something terrorists did to us; we did it to ourselves.  We bought supersized SUVs.  When gasoline hit $4 a gallon, millions embraced the oil pushers’ mindless chant “Drill, baby, drill!”

Drilling at sea is risky because our ancestors gave up gills and evolved lungs, so doing things underwater difficult and dangerous, especially a mile deep.  The Deepwater Horizon’s “fail-safe” blowout preventer didn’t work as promised.  The booms work only in calm weather.  BP can spray dispersants to “break up” the spill, but they’re toxic to marine life, as scientists documented—too late—after the colossal Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.  They can burn off some oil if we’re willing to accept seared dolphins and eggs of imperiled bluefin tuna as costs. 
Or they can drill a relief well, but that approach took 70 days in the Timor Sea.  BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill is in much deeper water, making relief unlikely anytime soon.

We could get our oil from overseas, but is it ethical to transfer the costs of our addiction to countries with even weaker environmental standards?  There are other costs.  Tankering is even riskier than drilling; most major oil spills have come from tankers.  Somali pirates love attacking tankers.  What if pirates open the oil valves?   Just as we can predict that BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill won’t be the last one, we can also predict that someone will sooner or later use a supertanker as a weapon of mass destruction.

But just as “Drill, baby, drill!” makes for simplistic and dangerous policy, so does “Not in my backyard!”  Our economy is far too dependent on oil.  Relying on foreign oil has profound national security risks.  As long as we’re addicted to oil, we’re dancing with the devil.

America can neither drill our way to energy independence nor go cold turkey.  But we can adopt a national energy policy that meets our energy needs while reducing our dependence on oil as our top priority.  The policy should minimize risk by deciding where we mustn’t drill, avoiding environmentally fragile areas where drilling is most dangerous—such as the Arctic—while dramatically strengthening protections where we’re willing to risk drilling.  It should focus on accelerated development of safer, lower-carbon choices to keep our homes comfortable and move our goods.  Doing so is no less important than winning a world war.  It requires us to transcend partisan jousting and make tough decisions with concern for our country and planet, weighing all the facts, because all energy alternatives have impacts.

Our Twelve Step Program can begin once we get past denial, saying, as a nation:  “Hello.  I’m the United States.  And I’m an addict.”

Elliott A. Norse, Ph.D. is President of Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue WA and a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation.

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