This is not cheap energy
May 10, 2010
by Ivan Raconteur

I still remember how disgusted and saddened I was more than 20 years ago as I watched the story of the Exxon Valdez disaster unfold.

I have been re-living a lot of those feelings lately, as the latest oil-related disaster plays out in the Gulf.

I do not consider myself what some people might call a tree-hugger, but it does seem like a pretty good idea to try to protect the environment in which we live, rather than destroying it out of greed and laziness.

That is not fanatical environmentalism; that is common sense.

I haven’t seen many of those “Drill here, drill now” T-shirts recently, but something tells me the hard-core types who have supported that campaign during the last couple of years won’t change their minds over a little thing like millions of gallons of oil gushing into a sensitive ecosystem.

Instead of considering the wisdom of changing behavior and conserving energy, they would rather keep on burning up fossil fuels as quickly as they can extract them, and they consider cutting the cost of that dirty energy much more important than preserving the planet.

We should get our adjectives right, by the way. I keep hearing people referring to this as an oil spill, and that doesn’t quite meet the reality of the situation. If a kid knocks over a glass of milk, that is a spill. When tens of thousands of gallons of oil are spewing into the ocean every day, it seems to me that a stronger word is needed.

Unfortunately, on many levels, we haven’t learned much in the past 20 years.

BP, the company who leased the Deepwater Horizon rig that blew up April 20, killing 11 workers and causing the current disaster, doesn’t seem to have a clue how to stop the flow or keep the oil from contaminating beaches, marshes, and wetlands any more than Exxon did back in the 1980s.

They have a few ideas for ways to stop the oil from flowing, but as far as I can tell, they are just guessing, and even the methods that have been used before have not been tested at the depths required in the current situation, where the source is 5,000 feet below the surface.

The lack of understanding of the problem is evidenced by the way this situation unfolded.

The earliest reports said no oil was leaking. By April 24, it was announced that about 1,000 barrels per day were gushing out of the well. By April 29, the estimate had been amended to about 5,000 barrels per day. That is a lot of oil.

I have made other observations recently, as well.

There are people who make a lot of noise about the evils of big government. Some of these people have loudly campaigned or lobbied for smaller government.

In many ways, I agree with them. What amazes me, though, is how quickly some of these small-government advocates change their tune when confronted with a crisis like the one we are facing now.

Suddenly, instead of wanting to shrink the role of government, they want the government to step in and save them.

Some of the most vocal of these, among which we can count the governors of the coastal states that are threatened by the oil, want the federal government to jump in with all the resources it can muster (which, by the way, means tax dollars) to fix the problem.

“We are certainly urging the federal government and BP to deploy more resources to help mitigate the impact of the oil spill that’s affecting the coast of our state,” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said.

We have already heard complaints that the federal government’s response to the crisis has not been “aggressive enough.”

There are others who go around banging the drum for tort reform. But, now, suddenly, some of these same people are demanding that BP should pay for the damages (as it should), and wailing that there should be no limit to the company’s liability.

I just don’t see how they can have it both ways.

If one honestly believes in smaller government, this should apply not just when it is convenient for scoring political points, but all the time, even when things get tough.

And, if one believes in tort reform, one can’t pick which companies are going to be protected by limits, and which should face unlimited liability. It has to be consistent across the board.

Finally, to those who insist that we need to drill for oil wherever we can to satisfy our ungovernable lust for cheap dirty energy, I would suggest that “cheap” is a relative term.

Until there is technology in place to deal with potential disasters that will occur when things go wrong (and history has shown that things will go wrong), it seems imprudent to increase drilling.

Maybe it would make more sense to have protections in place before problems arise, rather than trying to come up with solutions after the fact, especially when these measures can take months to implement.

Any attempt to restrict the oil industry is sure to meet with opposition from certain politicians, who seem more sympathetic with the powerful oil lobby than with their own constituents, but the Deepwater Horizon disaster is a wake-up call.

The oil will affect not only coastal states, but the rest of the country as well, albeit indirectly.

A huge area has already been closed to fishing, and the final impact of the incident won’t be known for months or years.

The livelihood and lifestyle of many people is threatened, as is the survival of wetlands, marine life, birds, and other creatures.

We would do well to remember this before we expand drilling into additional sensitive areas.

The “drill now” lobby equates cheap energy with patriotism, but fuel acquired at the cost of the environment, human life, and so many other things, is far from cheap.