I’ve held back on providing commentary on the Gulf oil spill. After all, the story has led the news for two and half weeks and every newspaper seems to have an Op-Ed on the topic every other day. Besides, I didn’t want to write a raving anger piece laced with numerous F-bombs and other expletives.
Many have commented that the spill should get President Obama to retract his misguided support of drilling off the mid-Atlantic seaboard and exploratory drilling off of northern Alaska in the Beaufort Sea. This is a great idea and the most obvious of recommendations in the wake of the ongoing Gulf disaster.
Many have demanded a moratorium on new offshore oil drilling exploration in U.S. waters. Yet McClatchy News reported that the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service has granted oil and gas companies at least 27 exemptions from doing in-depth environmental studies of oil exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded April 20.
That’s not exactly consistent with the temporary moratorium that the administration announced shortly after the beginning of the blowout. If the National Environmental Policy Act ever needed to be followed to the letter for oil drilling, now is the time.
BP received an exemption for an exploration plan to be conducted at a depth of greater than 4,000 feet. Another approved oil company plan would explore at greater than 9,000 feet.
Others have called for a massive increase in potential oil spill liability under the 1989 Oil Pollution Act, from a $75 million cap to a $10 billion cap retroactive to the start of the spill. It’s also a great, common sense idea that would lead to more efficient restoration of damaged natural resources and quicker compensation to those that have lost tourism and fishing revenues.
Still others have used the spill to bring attention to President Obama’s promise of a shift away from a petroleum-based economy and towards a green energy economy. The U.S. continues to subsidize the petroleum industries in ways ranging from tax breaks to cheap leases.
And the superb lobbying of the petroleum industry led to weaker regulations than those for other toxics sources, and an inadequate enforcement deterrent in the Clean Water Act. Polluters are only liable for up to $32,500 per day per Clean Water Act violation. That means that the volume of the spill only kicks up the penalty to that level: a total of about $500K at this point.
This lower amount may make sense for a sewage spill with far more limited spatial and temporal impacts, but the penalty is minuscule in massive pollution disasters like the Gulf spill. In fact, the penalty is really only an effective deterrent for chronic violators of limits in their discharge permits.
The spill brings up the need to add a volume-based multiplier to the penalty calculations. If the fine had a multiplier of $1,000 per gallon, a number commensurate with the scope of damages caused by an oil spill, then the penalty amount would be approaching $50 billion. A deterrent of this magnitude would lead to much stronger safety provisions, and more importantly, a greater focus on risk management.
The lens that must be used for all future offshore oil drilling has to be one of inevitable failure. If an oil platform were to have a catastrophic failure, we must ask: Will there be an adequate response that protects the surrounding ecosystem, nearby ecosystems and nearby ocean and coastal dependent commerce? If the answer is no, then further consideration of the project should stop right there.
Looking at the Gulf blowout as an example, the world is seeing that containment in the deep frigid waters a mile below the ocean’s surface is not feasible. And containment and cleanup of the oil is nearly impossible 50 miles from shore.
Rapid and large-scale ongoing response is critical to achieving even a semblance of adequate containment. As a result, one of our nation’s most critical and productive estuaries and fishing grounds suffers devastating consequences.
The potential consequences for the Arctic are even more depressing, with overwhelming risks to marine mammals, including numerous cetaceans, seals and polar bears. Drilling in such a remote area in extremely rough and icy seas with limited water clarity makes little sense. When a catastrophic incident in the remote Arctic occurs under such conditions, there won’t be the human resources to respond to a cleanup, nor the optimal environmental conditions to achieve a successful remediation.
If ever there has been a need to apply a precautionary approach to risk management, offshore oil drilling is the case. Risk assessors can come up with an abundance of scenarios that put the risk of catastrophic failure at levels near zero.
But the reality is that catastrophic failures occur, whether it is a blowout in the Gulf or off the Timor Sea, a drunk ship captain, a directionally challenged tanker captain off of Australia, or any other devastating mishap.
The nature of the petrochemical industry means that problems happen and they happen at a scope and scale that make solutions a near impossibility. Playing the odds with nature and people’s livelihoods at stake is not a gamble worth taking.
Even though the oil companies will provide compelling data that the chances of an enormous spill are infinitesimal, remember that some lucky stiff wins the Super Lotto nearly every week. And you can’t get odds much longer than that.