What the Spill Means for Offshore Drilling

The explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform has given new ammunition to critics of President Obama's recent decision to support expanded drilling for oil and natural gas in some coastal waters.

The White House initially stood firm, insisting the accident wouldn't affect the president's policy, but on Wednesday the deputy press secretary Bill Burton hedged, explaining he didn't want to "get in front of what the investigation produces."

Despite its tragic consequences, the Deepwater Horizon accident doesn't fundamentally change the strong safety record of offshore drilling in recent years. But the political context for the administration's policy is more fluid.

America is going to use a lot of oil for many years to come, and on balance, it makes sense to produce more of it at home rather than abroad.

Obama's proposal won't make America energy independent, or even cut the cost of gasoline perceptibly, given the size of global markets. Why did he bother? Because the politics of the moment demanded it. Expanded offshore exploration was Senator Lindsay Graham's price for cosponsoring climate legislation.

But that was before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid derailed the climate bill late last week, on the eve of its public unveiling, diminishing the value of the deal on drilling. The climate coalition may yet recover but it faces long odds. Meanwhile, coastal-state senators are expressing concerns about the administration's plan.

So the White House is waiting to see how the politics of these interconnected issues sort out in the coming days, and how much outrage grows over the still uncertain impacts from the spill.

On the merits, though, offshore drilling is good policy for one simple reason: America is going to use a lot of oil for many years to come, and on balance, it makes sense to produce more of it at home rather than abroad.

America's environmental standards are higher, and the risk of transporting oil by tanker from overseas is actually greater. Domestic production also creates jobs and tax revenues for state and federal coffers that can be used for environmental purposes ranging from land and water conservation to research and development of clean energy technologies that might someday make oil obsolete.

There's also symbolic value to supporting expanded drilling: The president should be a voice of moderation in a national conversation about energy often dominated by idealists and ideologues. Obama can call for long-term changes in the nation's energy infrastructure--if he remembers that Americans expect reliable and affordable energy. In the short term, they see domestic drilling as part of that picture.

Drilling opponents imagine there are easy alternatives to oil. We could all drive electric cars--but they need power too. Coal's human and environmental costs are well known. Nuclear power produces waste that will last for millennia. Large-scale solar projects would affect desert ecosystems. Wind power kills thousands of birds, and is fiercely opposed by some local residents. Hydroelectric power has environmental impacts; so do biofuels.

The list goes on, including problems with costs, reliability, scalability, effectiveness, and public acceptance. Every energy source we use today has drawbacks and limitations, and changing the ways in which we produce and consume energy will take time. We have barely begun to try. A fossil-fuel free future isn't inconceivable but it is decades away. Meanwhile, we can't drill our problems away, but drilling still has a role to play.

Samuel Thernstrom is a resident fellow and the codirector of the geoengineering project at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Dale Taylor

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About the Author


  • Samuel Thernstrom has studied and written about environmental issues for twenty years, with a particular emphasis on global climate change. He served on the White House Council on Environmental Quality prior to joining AEI in 2003. As codirector of the AEI Geoengineering Project, Mr. Thernstrom studied the policy implications of geoengineering, or climate engineering. This groundbreaking field of climate science involves changing features of the earth's environment to offset the warming effect of greenhouse gases. He has been published on nytimes.com and in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, and he has appeared on BBC News, ABC News, CNN, FOX News, NPR, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.

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