…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
If Deepwater Horizon is This Generation’s Exxon Valdez, How Long Will it Take Us to Learn the True Cost of Oil?
Categories: Commentary, Environment

by Meg White

Government officials have darkly predicted that the sunken Deepwater Horizon oil rig — still spilling toxic fuel into the Gulf of Mexico as I write this — may indeed surpass the Exxon Valdez disaster as the “most significant” oil spill in U.S. history.

As others in the media wax nostalgic about how this is Obama’s Katrina, I am instead transported back to last spring, when BuzzFlash marked the 20-year anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill with a four-part series.

Seeing as population experts often mark generations in terms of 20-year periods, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say this is my generation’s Exxon Valdez. Though I was alive at the time of the terrible tragedy in 1989, I didn’t have the wherewithal to connect, say, the heat pumping through my home with the environmental and social disaster in Prince William Sound.

Things are different today. I have become accountable for this mess, as have you. The thousands of barrels of oil flowing into the Gulf, along with 11 lives lost, are a product of our addiction to cheap energy. In order to satisfy our rapacious desire for fuel, we’ll gladly believe the lies of an industry that tells us swift change and safety measure are prohibitively expensive.

The Wall Street Journal reported after the disaster that the rig that exploded lacked a key safety feature required in other countries to limit the enormous amounts of oil currently being pumped into the ocean (emphasis mine):

The U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness, according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling…

U.S. regulators have considered mandating the use of remote-control acoustic switches or other back-up equipment at least since 2000. After a drilling ship accidentally released oil, the Minerals Management Service issued a safety notice that said a back-up system is “an essential component of a deepwater drilling system.”

…By 2003, U.S. regulators decided remote-controlled safeguards needed more study. A report commissioned by the Minerals Management Service said “acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly.”

According to the Journal, the device costs around $500,000. This may seem like a lot of money, until you consider the rig that exploded will cost $560 million to replace and that BP is spending $6 million a day to battle the oil spill. This is how cheap energy gets expensive, and quickly.

That doesn’t even bring into play the losses that will undoubtedly be suffered by wildlife, tourism and commercial fishing in the Gulf as a result of the calamity. These costs, often referred to as “externalities” by political economists, rarely show up at the gas pump or on our heating bill.

A ProPublica report details how government regulators failed to require BP to account for externalities in their plans for the now-disastrous project:

One step in the process that oil companies must go through to get approval for drilling involves submitting an exploration plan that lays out worst-case scenarios. The Huffington Post points out that MMS did not require BP — which owns the well that blew up — to file a plan for reacting to a “potential blowout,” meaning an uncontrollable spill.  According to The Huffington Post’s reporting, the more limited plan BP filed with MMS predicted that if worse came to worst, a spill would release 162,000 gallons of oil. The Deepwater Horizon spill has already exceeded that prediction.

All too often, opponents of cleaner energy cite cost as a reason not to pursue alternatives to oil, coal and gas. But isn’t it time this generation learned the true cost of dirty energy in terms of both lives and treasure?

As the oil slick spreads to the delicate coastal areas of Louisiana, the media is quick to try to draw parallels to Hurricane Katrina. But cries of “Is this Obama’s Katrina?” absolutely miss the point.

The truly worthwhile parallel to Katrina one can draw here is that this country continues to ignore the real costs of environmental degradation (in Katrina, the erosion of the wetlands that once buffered New Orleans certainly played a role in the devastation of the hurricane, leading to a snowball effect in terms of the area’s ecological strength today).

If we really want to learn from our mistakes, the comparison we should be making is with the Exxon Valdez. True, the Obama Administration should not have just taken BP’s word on the depth and breadth of the disaster. Officials should have known that when they’re caught behaving badly, oil companies lie about the damage they’ve done. Just like Exxon did 20 years ago.

Perhaps the government should have required this safety switch off device. Just as Exxon cried out that double-hulled tankers were too expensive and probably wouldn’t help prevent disaster anyway just prior to the Valdez’ hull being stripped open to the sea, Big Oil said that $500,000 was just too much money to spend on oil rig safety.

This is an echo of the same protests of cost containment we heard from Massey Energy ahead of the explosion that killed 25 in West Virginia. Meanwhile, energy-related deaths continue to mount as a Kentucky mine collapsed this week, claiming two lives.

The Obama Administration has wisely put their latest decision to expand offshore drilling on hold in light of the situation in the Gulf. And perhaps Deepwater Horizon, along with the recent rash of mine deaths, will encourage the Senate to consider an energy plan that would force us to account for the true cost of energy. And just maybe we could get industry to chip in on the bill with their historic profits, instead of with the valuable currency that is workers’ lives and our environment.


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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