Dubious Decisions on Drilling: Why Obama Should Reconsider Offshore Drilling in the Wake of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

by Alexis Collatos | May 5th, 2010 | |Subscribe

With the oil slick from Deepwater Horizon lapping at the shores of Louisiana, all sorts of doubts about the wisdom of offshore drilling are suddenly gushing up to the surface. Environmentalists and liberals long against offshore drilling are latching on to the disaster as hard proof that the potential costs of offshore drilling outweigh any possible benefits. In his recent op-ed for the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote, “President Obama needs to seize the moment; he needs to take on the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd, telling America that courting irreversible environmental disaster for the sake of a few barrels of oil, an amount that will hardly affect our dependence on imports, is a terrible bargain.” Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Florida, agreed, saying that “Drilling too close to the coast poses too great a risk to the economy and the environment of Florida and other coastal states.” Even Governor Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has decided not to allow additional offshore drilling in California in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Obviously, many of these reactions have more to do with politics and popularity than a sustained analysis of the costs and benefits of offshore drilling. But as my colleague John Prandato recently wrote, this is true for almost every aspect of the offshore drilling debate, which tends to be highly political rather than pragmatic in nature. Political considerations were largely behind Obama’s recent lifting of the ban on offshore drilling, a decision aimed at bolstering Republican support for climate change legislation. If it had worked, Obama’s concession might have been an acceptable sacrifice: Republican and conservative Democratic support is necessary to pass climate change legislation, and removing the ban on offshore drilling was seen as a potential trade for that support. Unfortunately, however, Obama’s gamble didn’t suceed. While Republicans dutifully applauded the decision, it isn’t clear that Obama won any actual Republican votes from it. And although some conservative Democrats, notably Senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb, may sign on to support the bill, their backing comes at the cost of more liberal and environmentally-minded lawmakers such as Nelson. Thus, as a political strategy aimed at garnering the votes necessary to pass climate change legislation, Obama’s decision to open up offshore drilling is looking like a wash.

Without any political boons, the administration’s justification for its decision must now rest on the laurels of pragmatic policy- essentially, that the benefits of offshore drilling outweigh the potentially catastrophic human and environmental risks that are being made so painfully obvious in the Gulf of Mexico right now. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that offshore drilling is good energy policy. According to the best government estimates, around 18 billion barrels of technically recoverable crude oil were protected under the moratorium. At current consumption rates, if these offshore reserves were to become magically available to consumers tomorrow, they would only be able to meet the U.S.’s total energy needs for about 2 and a half years. But the oil will not be available anytime in the near future. At the very soonest, production would not start for at least another seven years, and there would be “no significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.” Overall, it is not likely that offshore drilling will go very far towards reducing American dependence on foreign oil imports, nor will it have a meaningful impact on the price and availability of oil. In short, it is not a solution, or even a partial solution, to America’s energy problems.

Essentially, then, Obama has agreed to a questionable energy policy with potentially devastating impacts as a political sacrifice for votes he didn’t end up getting. Not a great deal. So what to do? In all likelihood, the future of offshore drilling is likely to remain a matter of political concessions aimed at hammering out energy legislation. But that doesn’t mean Obama shouldn’t at least take the opportunity given to him- as perverse as it sounds- by the Deepwater Horizon spill to ask American citizens to seriously examine the future of America’s energy security and our nation’s dependence on oil. Were Obama to step up and admit he made a miscalculation on the safety of offshore drilling, he could make an important move toward pushing Americans to invest in and adopt clean energy as an alternative to short-lived and dangerous oil drilling. While the Deepwater Horizon spill may be just one accident, it should be enough to remind us that sustainable energy, not offshore drilling, is where we should be focusing our efforts.

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