BP’s Oil Rig Disaster May Bring an End to Support for New Offshore Exploration

Under normal circumstances, I would be all over the story of last week’s BP oil rig disaster. By now, you all know that BP suffered an explosion and a fire in the Gulf of Mexico in which lives were lost and an unprecedented leak a mile below the surface of the ocean is occurring. Because of pressing deadlines (which after this week should be dealt with) I have barely kept up with any news at all. But as I watched the news trickle in over this, I couldn’t help but think the implications will be very far-reaching.

There are a number of angles in this story. It highlights the fact that the oil industry can be very dangerous, and accidents happen that can have serious consequences to health and the environment. We unfortunately have accidents in the oil industry every year. Helicopters crash ferrying workers to and from rigs. People die during routine maintenance for a variety of reasons – almost all of which were avoidable. But I believe the implications of this tragedy are going to be felt for a very long time.

Momentum was building for opening up new areas to offshore exploration. By all accounts, the U.S. does have a fair amount of oil offshore (although not nearly enough to make the U.S. energy independent), as well as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). As our oil supplies deplete and prices continue to climb, support for drilling offshore was almost certainly going to increase. Further, my personal belief is that we are going to have a significant shortfall of oil ten years from now, and any fields that are being developed now could take some amount of pressure off of those shortfalls.

I think the BP disaster changes the dynamic significantly. We have heard during this debate about how long it has been since the U.S. suffered any sort of rig disaster that resulted in an oil spill, and that there were really no worries about any oil ever washing up on beaches in Florida or California. Now, environmentalists have a fresh new example to point to when proponents push for drilling. Florida Governor Charlie Crist has already been quoted as saying that this closes the door on drilling off of Florida’s coast as long as he can prevent it.

So I believe the long term implications of this incident will be to exacerbate our slide down the backside of peak oil. Fields take a long time to develop, and fields being developed now may have been producing oil in 5 or 10 years. But I believe this window of opportunity has now closed, and it will be much more difficult to find broad support for expanded drilling.

I have explained my position on this in the past: I think we should drill and use the proceeds to fund programs for reducing our oil dependence. I am trying to think practically here, and I think what will happen if we don’t develop the oil we have will be more dependence on oil imports as opposed to a hastening of a transition to renewable fuels. There will be an element of the latter, but it won’t be enough.

Footnote: For the curious, over the past six months I have written four book chapters for different compilations. One was on bioenergy from forestry products, one was on the global energy picture, one was on diesel and distillates in general, and the last one – due this week – is on the potential of jatropha and algae as renewable energy options. After completion of this last chapter, I have no more outside writing obligations that should keep me from posting here regularly once more.