We need balanced approach to energy, environment

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, May 9, 2010; C01

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.

The damage would have to be apocalyptic to force the country to actually halt offshore drilling, given how much we depend on it. Offshore wells currently account for nearly a third of U.S. oil production. The U.S. government received $5.8 billion in royalties and other fees from offshore drilling last year. That doesn't count the jobs and taxes generated.

The more relevant question is whether to start offshore drilling in places such as Virginia, where it has been banned for decades. I think it's hypocritical to expect the gulf states to bear all the burden, while the whole country benefits from the oil. Margonelli described the gulf as "sort of an official sacrifice zone to American energy policy," while there have been "high-minded moratoriums" on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

It's irksome to stick up for the oil industry at a time like this. There's a good chance that somebody's negligence caused the gulf spill. But consider these facts about offshore drilling:

-- Much bigger spills have occurred without severe, long-term environmental harm. So far the gulf spill is less than one-fortieth the size of the biggest offshore drilling spill, at the Ixtoc 1 site off Mexico's gulf coast in 1979-1980. Little visible evidence of that spill remained three years later.

-- Oil tankers have caused more spills. This is a crucial point, because we'll be more dependent on imported oil, shipped by tankers, if we limit offshore drilling in America.

-- Offshore drilling elsewhere in the world is less well regulated. If we don't drill here, we'll rely more on offshore drilling in such places as Nigeria and Angola, where environment protections are weaker.

I favor aggressive efforts to promote alternative fuels and become more energy-efficient. But as long as we rely on oil, we should recognize that U.S. offshore production is an acceptable way to get it.

"Ninety-five percent of all our transportation is powered by oil. As long as that's the case, it's going to be dirty, and it's causing problems somewhere," said Eric Smith, a political scientist who specializes in environmental issues at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

I could look at this differently if the gulf spill wreaks enough havoc. But it's going to take a lot of greasy waterfowl to convince me.

Where's my finder's fee?

On a separate issue, congratulations to Maryland for taking my advice in Thursday's column and agreeing to fork over $28 million in capital funds that it owes the Metro transit system. The announcement came just half a day after the column appeared. I told Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein that I wanted a commission.

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