Lessons from a Disaster

Does the Deepwater Horizon spill really demonstrate the folly of off-shore drilling?

The April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the subsequent massive release of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico has been a disaster. But the accident and the country’s reaction to it says a lot about the way that many Americans view themselves, nature, and the balance between risks and rewards.

Opponents of off-shore drilling were quick to jump on the Deepwater Horizon disaster as proof that they were right: Off-shore drilling is just too risky a proposition for America to allow. But, they missed the ultimate point. If it chooses, the United States can prohibit off-shore drilling within our Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 miles from America’s coastline; but we cannot actually eliminate off-shore drilling. The rest of the world is free to “drill, baby, drill” outside of that barrier and it’s very clear that the rest of the world doesn’t have any qualms about doing so.

Brazil transformed itself from a net importer into a net exporter of petroleum through off-shore drilling. Russia signed a deal with Cuba to drill wells in the Gulf of Mexico, within Cuba’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Like it or not, off-shore oil exploration and production is here to stay. The only question is whether the United States will grab a piece of the energy pie or whether we’ll abandon our share to the rest of the world.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent spill is indeed a disaster, but – like all disasters, whether natural or man-made – one from which nature will recover. Indeed, the episode is symbolic of the larger debate between environmentalists and, for lack of a better word, realists. To the environmentalist crowd, Earth is a doddering, feeble old woman, precariously balanced on the brink of a catastrophe that mankind, through our self-serving and thoughtless exploitation of the planet, is sure to push over the brink.

History suggests this view is far from accurate. Far from being so fragile that we can expect her to self-destruct with barely a moment’s notice, nature is more accurately described as a tough, and sometimes mean, old broad who can take of herself just, fine thank you very much. If there was really a goddess Gaia, she’d be laughing her head off over the hubris of man for believing that our puny efforts could somehow influence her. Volcanoes explode and flora and fauna return, as robust as ever, with the course of a few years. Whether the ozone-hole scare was credible or not (put me down for the latter) it’s a “problem” that no longer causes any worry, if it ever should have in the first place. Mother Nature gets by.

As the Deepwater Horizon spill grew, some environmental types, accompanied by their trusty pals, panic, hysteria and anger, proclaimed the Gulf of Mexico a “dead zone” and sneered at the red-state residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama who would have to deal with the crude when it washed up on shore. As of Sunday night, the oil slick covered an area about the size of the island of Puerto Rico.

That’s a big oil slick, but if you compare the size of Puerto Rico to the size of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s difficult to understand how anyone could claim that the entire Gulf was in danger. As far as the “serves you right!” indignation from the environmental crowd, all you can do is to roll your eyes – again. For people so supposedly in love with nature, the green crowd sure doesn’t seem to care much for the species homo sapiens. Amazingly, Greenpeace was actually somewhat reasonable, with a common-sense reaction to the spill that was the exception that proved the rule. Not that Greenpeace didn’t take the opportunity to dump on off-shore drilling, but that wasn’t their only focus. They also talked about on what needed to be done in order to contain and clean up the spill, urging their members to donate their time and/or effort to help. Contrast that response to the way that the ultra left wingers at Media Matters “covered” the event, sparing nary a pixel to triumphantly wave the disaster in the Gulf in our faces as “proof” of the inherent evil of off-shore drilling.

The Left’s sinister gloating shouldn’t obscure the fact that the situation in the Gulf is a big deal. The salient question is whether risking this kind of big deal – and we haven’t had a big deal like this for thirty years – is worth the reward. Every human endeavor includes risk of some sort, whether it’s driving a car, operating a windmill (just ask the birds), flying to the moon or drilling into the ocean’s depths for a source of cheap energy. In each case, consciously or sub-consciously, we decide whether the rewards are worth the risks.

In the wake of Deepwater Horizon, the risks associated with ocean drilling are self-apparent. Yet, this kind of energy exploration will continue, whether or not the United States is part of the equation. We can, and hopefully will, learn from this event and do our best to reduce the risks in the future. Still, one oil-rig disaster every thirty years doesn’t make for that bad a record. The rewards associated with off-shore oil exploration may not be as transparent at first blush, but that doesn’t mean that such rewards are any less important. Cheap, abundant energy helps grow our economy and, by extension, makes life a lot easier for the poorest segments of the populace. We should learn a lesson from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. But if that lesson is that we’ll never drill again, we’d be tossing a baby we desperately need out with bathwater three decades old.