Keep drilling while we research cleaner options - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Keep drilling while we research cleaner options

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East Valley resident Tom Patterson ( is a retired physician and former state senator.

Posted: Saturday, June 12, 2010 3:30 am

The Gulf oil spill has riveted our attention for almost two months now. We’ve witnessed daily accounts of oil slicks lapping on the shore, wildlife habitat being spoiled and small businesses in trouble. But the most costly damage, by far, may be to future U.S. energy policy.

Environmental lefties are already clamoring for an end to off-shore drilling. With the political winds seeming to shift, our poll-driven president is backtracking furiously on his recent concession that increasing domestic oil production makes sense both from the economic and security perspectives.

President Obama insists he is responsible for stopping the leak and for the clean-up, so we’ll leave that to him. Obviously, those whose mistakes caused the spill should be held fully accountable. Meanwhile, we need to take a calm, long-range look at what this means for meeting future energy needs.

Some perspective is important. Administration officials are complaining now that the oil companies, in their permit applications to build the rigs, claimed there was little likelihood of a major spill. The companies were right.

Drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has been ongoing for 70 years now. There are currently over 700 rigs operating. Total Gulf production is 1.3 million barrels of oil daily and 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas, over one quarter of U.S. domestic production. Yet in the entire history of drilling here, this is only the second significant spill.

The first was the Ixtoci oil spill in 1979-80, caused by an explosion in a well operated by the Mexican government. Accidents do happen, but they are extremely rare in the history of U.S. drilling operations. Meanwhile, we’ve had the benefit of 70 years of production with only two major spills.

Moreover, spilled oil is ugly, but it’s not a permanent blot on the environment like uranium or arsenic. It is an organic substance that is continually being broken down by natural processes. That’s a good thing, because not only does oil seep from the ocean floor in prodigious amounts, but there have been at least 10 major oil spills much larger than the BP spill, generally from areas with lower safety standards.

To give you an idea, the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska was 11 million gallons while the BP spill may eventually total 18 to 39 million gallons. Yet in 1991 a single spill in Kuwait released 520 million gallons while seven other spills around the world have ranged from 71 to 100 million gallons.

Yet all that oil has caused no permanent damage to the globe. Instead, the oil is decomposed by microbes and the breakdown products enter the food chain. As a result, gulf production platforms function as an artificial reef. They have become incredibly productive fishing grounds.

Without a doubt, the BP spill is an economic and human disaster. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. We’ll hopefully learn some important lessons from it. But it’s also a political opportunity for some.

Self-styled environmentalists have used the BP spill to push their vision of a world powered only by renewable fuels. We’d all like that. The problem is that it’s pure fantasy for now. The technology doesn’t exist to feasibly supply our energy needs from sources like wind and solar. Nuclear is more realistic, but the enviros also object to that.

Even trying to live their dream is unaffordable. The “clean air” cap-and-trade bill now in Congress would cost over $160 billion annually, far beyond the $10 billion to $20 billion estimated cost to clean up the BP spill.

For now, the reality is that if we don’t wish to access our copious domestic oil reserves, we have to buy it from others. That gets any problems with drilling off our front pages. But it’s not a secure fuel source. It funds terrorist governments and organizations bent on our destruction and it transfers drilling operations to areas of the world with safety and environmental protections far weaker than ours.

Even if the politics around oil production has changed, the economic reality is the same. We need to take steps to prevent future spills and we need to keep researching cleaner energy production opportunities. But for now we should also keep drilling.

East Valley resident Tom Patterson ( is a retired physician and former state senator

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