Yesterday I asked this question and left it unanswered because I didn’t want to rush. I’ve spent a little time thinking about it and I know what I want to say.
First, a disclosure. The oil industry has been very good to my family for generations. I don’t know exactly what my great-grandfather did for his company but I know he was high in the org chart and supervised some things internationally. My father has worked for the same company for all of my 26 years, possibly longer. It’s not one of the big oil companies, but it’s still a large one that works internationally. So it’s possible that I have a slightly biased view of the oil industry; it fed me for decades.
One can definitely argue that it is ethically irresponsible to put populated areas at risk, but that assumes that the risk of a blowout and irreversible failure of a rig is something calculated to be frequent. When’s the last time this happened? I found an oil rig disaster site that seems to do a good job of sorting it out. If you choose “blowouts”, we’ll be doing an apples-to-apples comparison. The worst blowout (not counting the current one) leaked 3.5 million barrels of oil in 1979; it took 9 months to cap. It seems this is the most comparable to the current situation; the rest leaked less than 100,000 barrels and were capped within 2 weeks. There are other notable blowouts on the page but no figures for leaks are given; it seems that most of these killed people but were capped quickly enough to make the leak negligible. Based on these figures, we can see that there hasn’t been a blowout of this magnitude for 30 years. I won’t try to derive the odds of one of these blowouts happening, but it seems minuscule and conversation with my father seems to agree with this.
One may argue that any risk of such a disaster is enough to avoid drilling close to shore; it’s a fair argument. I’m not sure how economically feasible this is. Part of why we aggressively drill is because the country consumes oil at an alarming rate. I found a chart showing average commutes per state from a 2007 US Department of Transportation survey. The mean travel time to work in the US is 25.3 minutes. 76.1 of America drives alone to work. Here’s a fuel economy table. The average fuel efficiency has been consistently near 22 MPG for 20 years, while maximum fuel economy has been slowly increasing beyond 30 MPG. That’s an awful lot of waste, and you can see a very long lag between the current year model’s average fuel efficiency vs. the nation’s average; that’s a lot of waste. And that’s just cars. How many of us run air conditioning too much? How many of us don’t have solar panels on our roof? How many of us run 2 or more TVs in the house on the same channel? I’ve got 12 entertainment-related devices plugged into the wall at all times, how many does the average American have? How many of us run the heater too much in the winter? We’re developing electric cars, but the electricity can come from oil-fueled power plants; we just shift how the oil is used in this case.
What I’m getting at is we can’t just shut off offshore drilling and adjust to more expensive oil. Entire suburbs cannot relocate closer to cities without decades of work towards providing affordable housing within the cities. Public transportation has enough trouble making money without having to serve everyone in a 30 mile radius. Will America cooperate with cutting their electricity usage by a drastic percentage like 25%? Will homeowners pay upwards of $10,000 per home to install solar panels en masse? Will we spend billions and wait decades for nuclear to trade risk of oil disaster for risk of radioactive disaster*?
If we decide that offshore drilling near land is unethical, America will have to dramatically alter a lifestyle that has been lived since the 50s. It’s not something we can do quickly, either. Most of the changes we’d need to make require at least a decade of work and funding we’re currently spending to set buildings and people on fire in other countries. I see a growing sentiment for the nation to become “green”, but as is typical most people only want to be as green as they can get without giving up any luxuries. We’re going to have to give up a lot of them to end offshore drilling. Until then, we’ll continue to look the other way and hope rigs don’t fail. We do this for a lot of issues, and it’s a shame.
* Radioactive disaster is probably at most as likely as a spill of this magnitude. Wikipedia’s list of nuclear disasters shows that Three Mile Island in 1979 was the last failure that resulted in anything more dangerous than “required maintenance to repair damage”**. By that measure, I suppose you could call nuclear safer. Anything I say to disagree felt like I was being biased, so I won’t comment further.
** For this post I’m not going to consider international nuclear disasters, since a disaster in another country isn’t likely to have as large an impact on America. Chernobyl was in 1986; there was so much human error and borderline incompetence related to this disaster I’m not sure it counts. I’ve heard that the reactor design was inherently unsafe as well, and a modern reactor wouldn’t be at risk for the same disaster. I’m not a nuclear engineer, so I cannot verify.