Page 2 of 2   <      

Will the oil spill make a drop of difference regarding our attitudes?

President Obama has pledged to end America┬┐s dependence on foreign oil and his administration is spending billions on greener energy initiatives. Few issues are considered more urgent by the White House and average Americans than securing affordable and more environmentally friendly energy sources.

He said companies with relatively good safety reputations, such as Exxon Mobil and Shell, have not only scrutinized their own practices but are also pushing for improvements at firms they see as laggards. Moreover, four big companies -- Exxon, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Chevron -- have pledged to spend $1 billion on a Gulf of Mexico spill response force, complete with prefabricated equipment and full-time response teams.

"I don't think any of us looks at this and says this is an acceptable response," Shell Oil President Marvin Odum said of the Macondo accident during the summer.

Reilly also points to regulatory changes in progress, including an increase in the number of federal government inspectors. Many policy makers are looking to the nuclear industry for models to ensure that safety can be maintained in a highly technical area.

But the fundamentals of energy use, policy and exploration remain as unmoved as the rock formations at the bottom of the gulf -- despite what Agora Financial energy analyst Byron King has called the offshore oil industry's Chernobyl.

Most unchanged of all: U.S. motorists. Oil companies go to sea to keep us moving around on land. More than half of U.S. oil use -- and about one in eight crude oil barrels worldwide -- goes to fuel our cars and trucks. In part because of the slightly improved economy, consumers used about half a percent more gasoline this summer than they did last year.

"In terms of an effect of the oil spill on consumption, it is hard to see a direct link," said Howard Gruenspecht, deputy director of the federal Energy Information Administration.

Many energy experts support higher taxes on oil products, such as gasoline, to cut U.S. consumption. With the country relying on imports for 60 percent of its needs, national security experts want lower consumption, too.

But with the no-tax tea party making political inroads and the sluggish economy, there is even less thirst than usual among lawmakers for gasoline tax increases.

The spill "probably seeds that desire to get onto cleaner fuels, but we haven't seen a political impulse in these hard economic times to do anything costly to achieve that goal," said Phil Sharp, a former congressman and president of Resources for the Future, a Washington think tank.

Josh Dorner, former Sierra Club spokesman now at the Center for American Progress, said the spill was "another in a long series of wake-up calls about needing to get on a more sustainable path about the way we use energy." But, he added, "it comes at a time when people are increasingly anxious about the economy and any number of things. So I think at some point there's a litle bit of an overload of bad news."

The industry knows that and has voted with its feet -- or rigs. Few oil executives expect any fundamental change in plans for drilling exploration wells in the Gulf of Mexico; as a result, all but two of the 33 deep-water exploration rigs in the gulf have stayed there awaiting the end of the moratorium. The gulf is where 19 percent of U.S. proven crude oil reserves lie, and it is where the best prospects are.

"Things will be slower, more deliberate; financing is going to be tighter," said Agora's King. "To the extent people are going to keep doing deep-water drilling -- and they are, because that's where the oil is -- we're still going to drill it, but you're going to see renewed emphasis on safety."

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company