World Oil Roundup
Update (March 8, 6 pm): it's been a rough week for oil production. A rig explosion off the Louisiana coast on Tuesday forced two workers to escape on a life boat and the Coast Guard to scramble in response (luckily, with no fatalities), and just two days later an onlooker spotted an oil leak in Ventura, California.
From the streets of Libya to the halls of Capitol Hill, one word has been heard over and over in recent weeks: oil. As always, the price spikes caused by current global unrest are prompting a forceful debate about America's energy policy (or lack thereof). Though the United States' oil imports from Libya are a drop in the bucket of our overall consumption, the violence in North Africa will still become a rallying point for advocates of increasing domestic fossil fuel production. Yet, short-sighted responses in the name of energy security exacerbate our long-term energy crisis, threaten our health and environment, and undermine support for truly sustainable solutions.
One proposal gaining traction is to open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the world's largest emergency oil supply. The 727 million barrel reserve was last tapped in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina sent shock waves through the oil supply. Though many experts and administrators are resistant to opening the reserve in what is (not yet, at least) a supply emergency, a group of Senators led by Sheldon Whitehouse (D - RI) wrote to the President last week supporting a release from the Reserve as a way to fight rising gas prices, and House leaders have supported the move as well.
Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), a leader on energy issues, also called for opening the Reserve last week. His Republican counterpart on the Senate Energy Committee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has gone a different route, repeating calls to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration and take other steps to speed domestic oil production. These tools can't solve short-term oil supply and price problems, as it takes years to bring new oil sources on-line and, even when these sources are tapped, they are simply not large enough to make a dent in world oil prices.
Nonetheless, many Americans are jumping on board with boosting domestic production, with a recent poll finding that "76% believe the United States does not do enough to develop its own gas and oil resources." Another poll found a similar uptick in support for drililng in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other environmentally sensitive areas.
Yet bumping up domestic production simply will not meet our energy needs. The U.S. uses nearly 20 million barrels of oil each day, more than Japan, Russia, China and India combined. And though the U.S. is actually a significant oil producer (and imports more oil from Canada than from the Persian Gulf), it's simply not sustainable to continue consuming nearly a quarter of the global oil supply with less than five percent of the world's population. (For more interesting stats about our oil use, check out this DailyFinance piece.)
Further, we are only beginning to see how damaging oil can be when the drilling and production process goes awry as it did in the Gulf last spring with the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The Natural Resources Damage Assessment process, which measures the environmental toll of such disasters, is underway but will take years to complete. Studies are just beginning on the health effects of the oil spill, as more and more local residents raise concerns about health implications from the oil and dispersants, especially for those involved in the clean up work. Clearly there is much we don't yet know about the spill. Over twenty years later, the Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska continues to teach this lesson. The once-closed case recently returned to court as a marine biologist contends that Exxon still hasn't fully paid for the long-term impacts of the spill, including the collapse in the herring population, which occurred years after the initial incident.
Despite these risks and the lack of reward for new drilling, the Department of the Interior approved a new deepwater drilling permit in the Gulf last week - the first since the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the moratorium on new oil drilling that followed. The permit is for a well off the Louisiana coast for a company owned, in large part, by BP. While the permit supposedly complies with stricter safety laws implemented after the oil spill, skepticism remains about the intention of companies and their ability to truly contain disastrous spills. Later last week, we learned that BP's "other troubled rig in the Gulf," the Atlantis, was cleared to return to drilling operations. All the while, oil companies continue to rake in profit while avoiding cuts to their subsidies and tax breaks that should appeal to politicians of all stripes during this time of fiscal challenges and budget slashing.
While many are celebrating this gradual 'return to normalcy' for the Gulf and its oil-driven economy, I can't help but be wary of the implications of new drilling leases for our environment and long-term energy future. Sure, domestic energy security is important - but are we really boosting our energy security through these measures, or are we just setting ourselves up for a string of oil disasters that will hurt our economy, our security, our health and our environment? How can we look long-term and begin to cut our dependence on fossil fuels, wherever they come from?