We need balanced approach to energy, environment

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, May 9, 2010

I refuse to get outraged over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill until I see photos of acres of dead birds coated in petroleum goo. Then I might change my mind and condemn offshore drilling.

I predict the rest of the country will do the same.

I write that only partially tongue-in-cheek. It's easy and fashionable to turn indignant over offshore drilling when beaches, shrimp and the watermen's way of life are threatened by an oil industry that we all knew was evil anyway.

Then we hop in our cars, drive to our air-conditioned houses and kvetch that gasoline prices are up a dime. Just before the summer vacation driving season! Those so-and-so's are at it again.

We can't have it both ways. We should admit that we've made a deal with devil petroleum for now. Then we should wiggle out of the bargain with the least damage to our lifestyle.

That means getting serious about reducing our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels -- and, yes, that means raising prices -- but doing so gradually.

I believe it also means supporting offshore drilling and nuclear power, as long as rigorous environmental safeguards are in place. Both issues are on the table in our region. Virginia wants to start drilling off Hampton Roads as soon as four years from now. Virginia and Maryland are considering building new nuclear power reactors.

The multibillion-dollar question raised by the gulf spill is whether offshore drilling is so inherently risky that we can't tolerate it. That's where the dead birds come in.

Basically, the oil industry makes a pretty good case that major spills from offshore platforms have been rare. This is the first significant U.S. offshore drilling spill since the infamous 1969 mishap in Santa Barbara, Calif.

However, a single spill can cause devastation if the slicks pollute a sensitive spot. If the gulf spill destroys wildlife refuges, or cripples the local seafood or tourism industries, then we're going to have to look again at whether our technology is adequate to protect what needs protecting. So far, only a small amount has struck land.

Offshore drilling can be seen as having "a good record, but it kind of doesn't matter politically as soon as it washes ashore," said Lisa Margonelli, director of the energy policy initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit policy think tank. "The moment it starts to coat the birds, it really galvanizes public opinion against oil companies. It galvanizes it against drilling."

It's too soon to say how serious the damage will be. Gulf oil workers, along with those in Norway, are probably the best equipped in the world to deal with a spill. BP, which was leasing the rig that exploded last month, has a strong incentive to minimize the harm because it's on the hook for the cleanup costs.

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