The devastation from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill widened this week, as the federal government put up to 19 percent of the gulf off-limits to fishing -- and experts warned that the plume of oil could spread up the East Coast. The incident has prompted renewed debate about the safety and wisdom of oil production in environmentally sensitive areas.
Should that production continue? Or is it time to shut down the oilrigs and fire up the solar panels? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, have an energetic discussion.
It would be nice if we could unilaterally end offshore oil drilling. Nobody likes to see the oily bird carcasses washing up on beaches, nor the plaintive looks in the eyes of suddenly idled Louisiana fishermen. The widespread damage being done right now in the Gulf of Mexico should be intolerable.
But we will tolerate it. We have to. America's energy demands are simply too great to give it up -- our politicians are not going to ask us to sacrifice our comfortable lifestyles; we won't let them in any case -- and the country isn't anywhere close to ready to switch over to "alternative" energy sources like wind and solar to pick up the slack.
If some environmentalists are ready to declare a moratorium without ready alternatives, however, drilling enthusiasts can be much too cavalier about the safety of offshore drilling. Large-scale energy production of any sort is almost always a complicated and dangerous proposition, whether at Chernobyl or in the Atlantic Ocean. Disasters -- the devastation of whole swaths of the planet -- are inevitable. So regulations on drilling should be tight, and rigorously enforced.
That hasn't been the case. The New York Times reported that the federal government gave permission to dozens of oil companies -- including BP -- to drill offshore even though they hadn't completed "required" environmental reviews. That's inexcusable.
We rely on oil energy because, for now, we have to. However, that's no reason to let the oil companies essentially regulate themselves. Getting rigorous about the rules and their enforcement will probably make energy a little more expensive for all of us, but the cost will be necessary. Our own ability to survive on the planet depends upon it.
We make the policies, we pay the price.
Why do oil companies drill in deep water, where the risks of a BP-like rupture are higher? Because shallow water is off-limits. A massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California in 1969 led to a moratorium on new drilling near the U.S. coastline to avert similar disasters. In the minds of some legislators and policymakers, nothing has changed in more than 40 years.
Why hasn't the United States built a new commercial nuclear power plant in more than 30 years? Because in 1979, a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania led to the release of toxic radioactive gasses, and the evacuation of 140,000 people from nearby communities. Nobody died, but the response by the plant's owners was halting and at times inept. As a result, the raft of new regulations and negative public opinion set the country's nuclear power development back a generation. In the minds of some legislators and policymakers, nothing has changed in more than 30 years.
Why hasn't a "green economy" blossomed more quickly in the United States? Because even though the costs and risks of oil, coal and nuclear power may seem high, the costs and risks of wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable power sources are in many respects higher still. No, a wind turbine isn't suddenly going to spew toxic gas. But for optimal output, we might need to build thousands of turbines and millions of miles of new transmission lines in environmentally sensitive, relatively pristine parts of the country.
We could cover the landscape with solar panels and wind turbines, but we wouldn't be able to meet our current power needs. Besides, only a very small percentage of the oil the United States imports goes toward generating electricity. Most of it goes into our gas tanks.
To the extent we can find cleaner, more efficient alternatives, great. But we're very much a petroleum-based economy, and we'll remain so for a long time. As long as that's true, we'll need to keep drilling.