Posted by: Jeff | May 5, 2010

The Deep-Water Drilling Gamble

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, now around the two-week mark, has been a moment of personal chastisement for me. My reaction to the “drill baby drill” crowd was never anything other than contempt, but my reasons were primarily economic; it was obvious that support for more offshore drilling was driven by the combined beliefs that more domestic oil production would keep the price of gas down and provide the U.S. with greater energy independence from the Middle East. Neither belief is true, and holding them demonstrates nothing other than a profound ignorance of how the global oil market works.

So the “drill baby drill” crowd clearly did not know what it was talking about. On the other hand, if they were willing to take greater offshore exploration as a trade-off for cape-and-trade and greater investment in alternative energy sources, my attitude was, “Great. Give it to them.” Because I assumed that while the upside benefit of more oil exploration was negligible, so was the downside risk. I basically bought the industry’s argument: the drilling and platform technology is now much more advanced, these drilling operations are of a sophistication equivalent to moon-landings, and the possibility of a spill is under control.

So. Yeah. Silly me… Which isn’t to say those arguments are untrue. It’s just that they contain a certain in-built hubris; they treat technological capacity as if it’s equivalent to mastery of reality in some essential, metaphysical sense. But we human beings are not gods, and we inevitably screw-up and overestimate our powers; the randomness and irony of reality will always infiltrate even our best-laid plans. There will always be risk.

Best case scenario; the underwater domes British Petroleum is prepping are successfully installed without further incident or complication, and begin siphoning the oil to tankers on the surface. In which case, the leak keeps going for another few weeks. Worst case scenario; we can’t cap this thing until the side well is finished drilling and cement can be pumped in to close the original well. In which case, this thing keeps gushing for a few more months.

This “let’s try multiple jury-rigged solutions” approach (I’ve seen comparisons to the round-the-clock brainstorming that went into solving the Apollo 13 crisis) highlights a deeper problem that Rachel Maddow brought up in an interview with Rep. Frank Pallone; at this point, more offshore exploration means drilling wells at depths where, if there’s a leak, we literally don’t know how to stop it. And Nicole Gelinas reminds us that there are multiple dimensions along which we assess risk; one risk may be far more intolerable than another, even if both have the same statistical likelihood. Compare a one percent chance of a three-care pile-up in Times Square to a one percent chance of a nuclear bomb going off in the same location. Some contingencies are so catastrophic that even a minimal chance should weigh heavily on our judgment.

Now, the Deepwater Horizon leak is not the end of the world. Even under the worst case possibility that it leaks for months, it won’t come anywhere close to equalling the worst spills the globe has seen in the last few decades. On the other hand, as I said above, the economic benefits of continuing this kind of deep-water offshore drilling, in terms of cheaper oil and better energy policy, are negligible. And the economic costs to the American economy, already in a fragile state, are estimated in the billions at minimum.

And don’t even get me started on the moral costs of this spill; the damage done to the gulf ecology, and the thousands if not millions of animals that will be effected. The natural world has an inherent moral value apart from its utilitarian usefulness to human civilization, and the Deepwater Horizon spill represents a stewardship failure of massive proportions. As a society, we did this. We chose to take this risk. And given the speed with which support for offshore drilling has gone from being a badge of reasonable centrism to being pretty much dead on arrival, I think it’s obvious our civic discourse has yet to responsibly think through that risk. It’s not crazy to insist that continuing this sort of oil exploration simply isn’t worth it.


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