Judging from the triumphant tone of the e-mails I’m getting from indignant environmentalists about the oil spill in the Gulf, I’d have to say they are having the most fun since the ExxonValdez. After all, the greens were slowly losing ground to expanded domestic oil and gas production, and now they have a catastrophe to reinvigorate their philosophy of No. As many have observed, this spill is the Three Mile Island/Chernobyl of offshore drilling, and will likely set back further offshore drilling for decades, unless we find out there was some truly extraordinary human error, negligence, or unprecedented equipment failure. Even sabotage wouldn’t get Big Offshore Oil off the hook; after the 1984 chemical catastrophe in Bhopal, India, was determined to have been an act of sabotage, the political hysteria over chemical plants was unabated.
What is clear is that the overall risk of environmental harm will likely increase from the reaction to this. Why? In the first place, it means we’ll import more oil — by tanker. Over at that other conservative magazine, I offer some thoughts on how the risk of oil spills from tankers is still much larger than the risk from offshore drilling:
If we were truly concerned about minimizing risks of oil spills in the ocean, we’d cut back on shipping oil by tanker. The amount of oil spilled in tanker accidents dwarfs the amount spilled from drilling rig accidents. (The long-term global trend of oil spills from all sources is down, despite the increase in both offshore drilling and oil shipped by tanker.) The Deepwater Horizon spill is on course to match or exceed the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. But the Exxon Valdez spill was only the 35th largest tanker-related spill over the last 40 years. Since the Exxon Valdez, there have been seven larger tanker spills; the ABT Summer disaster off the Angolan coast in 1991 spilled seven times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez, but received hardly any media coverage in the United States. And while it is too early to know how extensive will be the damage to Gulf Coast shoreline ecosystems, it is not too early to expect that many dire predictions will be proven wrong.
“This has been the pattern since the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. A hastily assembled White House panel of experts concluded that it might take 10 to 20 years to stop the still-seeping oil in the Santa Barbara Channel. It took only a few weeks. Another group of experts forecast that with the number of rigs operating in the channel, a similar blowout could be expected to occur on average once a decade. There hasn’t been another one in the channel since. Dire predictions of the permanent loss of wildlife and damage to the channel’s ecosystem became a daily refrain. But as Time magazine reported five months after the spill, ‘dire predictions seem to have been overstated. . . . Now, four months later, the channel’s ecology seems to have been restored to virtually its natural state.’ A multi-volume study by the University of Southern California two years later concluded that ‘damage to the biota was not widespread.’
Despite what environmentalists wish, this oil spill isn’t going to make American quit consuming oil. In the aftermath of this spill, there will over the long term be increased demand for oil from Canadian tar sands (and ultimately from our own huge oil shale deposits out west), whose environmental footprint is much higher than the Gulf spill, and much of the additional oil we will now import will come from nations that are expanding their own offshore drilling to sell it to us. Think Angola is likely to inspect its offshore oil platforms as often as we will?
“No energy source is risk-free or environmentally benign; just ask West Virginia coal miners, or check up on the avian mortality of wind power, or the potential disruption of desert ecosystems from proposed large solar power projects, or, indeed, the additional pollution of the Gulf coast from ethanol production. The greatest risk of all is the inability to weigh trade-offs.”