The Wake Up Call on the BP Drilling Disaster

I have a few stories in the pipeline, but none seem particularly important with this BP disaster continuing to play out in the Gulf of Mexico. Following my previous story – in which I warned that the political fallout would be huge – President Obama has applied the brakes to new drilling projects, calling this spill a “massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.” Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has also reversed his position on opening up offshore areas of California to drilling.

Schwarzenegger announced his decision on the plan Monday, saying TV images of the spill made him change his mind about the safety of ocean-based oil platforms.

“You turn on the television and see this enormous disaster, you say to yourself, ‘Why would we want to take on that kind of risk?'” he said at a news conference near Sacramento.

Senators from coastal areas of the United States have come out and said they will filibuster any legislation that attempts to open up new areas to drilling:

Democratic senators from two coastal states Tuesday called on President Obama to reverse his call for expanded offshore oil exploration after a massive spill from a damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I will make it short and to the point: The president’s proposal for offshore drilling is dead on arrival,” Florida Sen. Bill Nelson told reporters.

Meanwhile, the New York Times poses the question of how bad it really is:

Gulf Oil Spill Is Bad, but How Bad?

Some experts have been quick to predict apocalypse, painting grim pictures of 1,000 miles of irreplaceable wetlands and beaches at risk, fisheries damaged for seasons, fragile species wiped out and a region and an industry economically crippled for years.

“Right now what people are fearing has not materialized,” said Edward B. Overton, professor emeritus of environmental science at Louisiana State University and an expert on oil spills. “People have the idea of an Exxon Valdez, with a gunky, smelly black tide looming over the horizon waiting to wash ashore. I do not anticipate this will happen down here unless things get a lot worse.”

Nobody can say for certain just how bad the environmental fallout will be. It is too early to tell whether this will be ultimately comparable to the Exxon Valdez. But how bad is it? I am not one given to hyperbole, but beyond just the environmental implications, as I said in the previous essay I believe this is a death blow for the expansion of deepwater drilling in the U.S. Some will view that as a silver lining, others will view that as a potential disaster itself in that it will probably increase our dependence on foreign sources of petroleum in the short term, and exacerbate shortages in the long term.

This disaster calls into serious question the risk assessments that were done prior to drilling, which would have concluded that the risk of such an incident was remote. If the risk assessment concludes that there is anything other than an infinitesimal risk of something like this happening, you do not proceed unless the perceived risk is mitigated. But risk assessments are done by people, and people have blind spots. People make mistakes. I predict that when the incident investigation is complete, there will be specific risks identified that were overlooked or downplayed during the risk assessment. But then the next question is “What else has been overlooked?”

Who is ultimately responsible for this? BP and Transocean obviously bear the most direct responsibility. But keep in mind that we enable BP because we demand cheap energy. There are very real consequences from our cheap energy demands, and this incident casts a spotlight on one of those consequences. When gas prices spike, the public gets angry and politicians promise their constituents that they will fix the problem. So what is the result? We continue to scour the globe for cheap fossil fuels to satiate the public’s demand to be able to pull up to the pump and pay $2.50 a gallon for gasoline any time we feel like it. So while BP is certainly responsible, so are we all.

I have read of demands that this needs to be a wake-up call that we need cleaner sources of energy. I think we have already had that wake-up call. I think people recognize that we need cleaner sources of energy. If you poll the public, you will find broad support for that. No, the wake-up call needs to be that people connect the dots from their own energy consumption to oil spills in the gulf and explosions in coal mines. When that wake-up call is heeded, perhaps people can begin to understand the consequences of our perpetual demands for cheap energy. Then maybe we can all decide that the “non-negotiable American way of life” is actually negotiable.