Sacrificing the Gulf for the Illusion of Energy Independence

Stephen Smith | April 29, 2010 | Energy Policy, Offshore Drilling

This blog was co-authored by Dr. Stephen Smith, Toni Reale and Jennifer Rennicks.

Hollywood couldn’t have written a stranger, more ironic script depicting our nation’s ugly, polluting and dangerous energy addiction.  On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the world watched as the Deepwater Horizon, the “technologically advanced” $600 million exploratory drill rig, sank into the Gulf of Mexico following an unexplained explosion two days earlier that killed eleven workers.  The raging fire that followed the explosion burned for 36 hours before the entire rig broke apart and sank, exposing an open wellhead that officials now say may be leaking approximately 5,000 barrels a day from three different leaks.  The rig was located 50 miles offshore from Louisiana and operated by TransOcean Ltd under contract to oil giant, BP.

Crews have been unsuccessful in multiple attempts to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil that continue to gush from the blowout on the sea floor.  In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard indicates that BP may be “90 days out from securing the source permanently” and this morning, BP officials said they would welcome help from the U.S. military in attempts to contain the disaster. Currently, the spill covers an area slightly larger than the state of West Virginia (over 28,600 square miles) and can now be seen from space (see image above from April 25th).

“If we don’t secure this well, this could be one of the most significant oil spills in U.S. history”, said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry, overseeing the operations.

The oil slick is moving towards the barrier island communities off the southeastern coast of the Gulf and is projected to hit land as early as tomorrow.  Will this terrible disaster end up being the poster child for all the reasons why we should adamantly oppose any oil drilling off of any of our coasts?


Fighting Oil with Fire?

The insanity continues in the form of a desperate attempt to prevent some of the surface spill from reaching land.  The Coast Guard has moved to plan “B”: setting fire to the oil slick.  Igniting an oil slick is absolutely absurd! Why control a natural disaster by creating new one?  Massive quantities of smoke, soot and global warming pollution will be released into the atmosphere further compounding this environmental catastrophe.  This method of ‘clean up’ is rarely used; the Coast Guard conducted test burns yesterday in an attempt to see if this method will even work.  This is a prime example of why even with the most technologically advanced equipment and supposedly well-trained crews that this industry is far from safe and is, in fact, “the opposite of safe” as Gov. Crist put it.

As the Coast Guard, BP and now the U.S. military scramble to control this cascading disaster, emergency response teams and local governments in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida are preparing for the worst case environmental catastrophe: hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil lapping onto shore, oiling their wildlife, fisheries and tourism economies.  Business owners, tourism officials and fishermen all along the Gulf Coast standby as the threat to their livelihoods becomes more of a reality as the spill creeps closer to shore.

“This is the worst possible thing that could happen to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It will wipe out the oyster industry. Shrimping wouldn’t recover for years. It would kill family tourism. That’s our livelihood” – Louis Skrmetta, 54, owner of Ship Island Excursions

Selling Out our Coasts for False Promises

Incredulously, and despite this ongoing tragedy, some major environmental groups and members of the Democratic party who have long opposed offshore drilling appear willing to look the other way as Senators Kerry and Lieberman are poised to release an energy and climate bill in the coming days or weeks that could expand offshore drilling into the eastern Gulf and along the Atlantic seaboard.  Although such measures were initially included to attract the support of Republican lawmakers, the only movement we have seen is from gushing oil in the Gulf as there is no discernible support evident from Republicans for this bill as even the third original sponsor, Republican Sen. Graham, walked away from the negotiations over the weekend.

Even before this tragedy occurred, to include offshore drilling in a federal bill that seeks reductions of climate pollution would have been counter-intuitive, at best, and a risky proposal, at worst.  In the end, such a measure would merely dig our hole deeper as more fossil fuel drilling will result in more carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, the President has also bought into this short-sighted plan and the White House maintained last Friday it had no intention of backing down on its proposal to expand offshore drilling. “We need the increased production. The president still continues to believe the great majority of that can be done safely, securely and without any harm to the environment,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.  The Deepwater catastrophe as well as a laundry list of other spills, deaths, and related environmental losses clearly disproves the President’s statement.  So why does the White House continue to peddle this misinformation to the public?

Proponents of offshore oil drilling only offer illusion.  Increased domestic production will never reduce our dependence on foreign oil or drive down gas prices.  Drilling for more oil only feeds our addiction.  The only way we will ever reduce our dependency is to reduce our consumption.  In fact, federal legislation that promotes clean, alternative energy and greater efficiency will reduce our oil imports four times more than drilling.

We need real solutions to move us away from dangerous and destructive energy sources and towards clean, renewable energy options.  We already have technologies to help us transition away from petroleum: greater fuel efficiency, hybrid and electric cars, and cellulosic biofuels all hold the promise of a clean energy economy.

Not only does offshore drilling threaten coastal habitats and place our coastal tourism economies at risk, it is the wrong solution as we seek clean energy options to address climate change.  Selling out our coasts for the false promises of energy independence and lower gas prices is simply a dangerous direction for the United States in terms of energy security and stability.

“Drill Here, Drill Now” Chanters Must Change their Tune


Some pro-drilling advocates like Florida’s Governor, Charlie Crist, are having a change of heart.  After a plane ride over the Gulf spill on Tuesday, Governor Crist announced that “there is no question now that lawmakers should give up on the idea of drilling off Florida’s coast this year and in coming years”.  The Governor previously stated that he would support offshore drilling if it was “far enough from shore, safe enough and clean enough.”  He now says that the spill is proof that that is not possible.

We hope that other pro-drilling advocates like Florida’s Speaker of the House, Dean Cannon, and Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos follow the Governor’s lead and change their tune.  Additionally Southern Governors such as Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour and Texas’s Rick Perry who have been historically outspoken about expanding drilling off of their coasts must rethink their positions.

Will Newt Gingrich, who has been parading around the country passing out Drill Now Pay Less bumper stickers, reconsider the true cost of drilling or will he continue to be part of the “energy independence” illusion machine in this country?  What about the millions of Americans who have chanted “Drill Baby Drill” at rallies?  Will they soon realize that this mantra really means “Spill Baby Spill”?

Safety or Profits First?

Could this catastrophe have been prevented?  The families of the workers who are presumed dead believe so and have filed a lawsuit stating that the oil giant BP and TransOcean have violated “numerous statutes and regulations” issued by both the US Coast Guard and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  In addition to the claims of negligence, BP and TransOcean worked aggressively last year to oppose new federal safety regulations that were prompted by the oil industry’s abysmal safety record.  These two companies were joined by the American Petroleum Institute and the Offshore Operators Committee in a fight against the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) to prevent any new safety regulations stating that the voluntary safety programs that have been in place “have been and continue to be very successful.”

The truth is that since 2001, there have been 69 offshore deaths, 1,349 injuries and 858 fires in the Gulf of Mexico.  Moreover, there were 39 fires or explosions reported in the Gulf during the first half of 2009 alone, the latest period for which statistics are available according to the MMS.  With this track record, what exactly does the oil industry consider “successful”?

On September 2, 2009 the Offshore Operations Committee (OOC) gave a powerpoint presentation to the MMS that included a slide stating “What Do Hurricanes and New Rules Have in Common?”, “Both are Disruptive to Operations and are Costly to Recover From.”  They also include that the OOC is disappointed that the MMS doesn’t think their safety measures are effective considering that their safety record “is good and is getting better” and complaints that workdays were lost due to compliance with various safety regulations.  This leads one to believe that this industry sees lives lost and compromised safety of its workers as little more than the cost of doing business.

This timeline sheds new light on the events of the last week – Fall of 2009: BP fights MMS safety regulations; April 20th, 2010: BP’s Deepwater Horizon explodes; April 22th, 2010: Deepwater Horizon explodes and sinks; April 26th, 2010: BP announces that their first-quarter profits are up 135% ; April 28th, 2010: the MMS cancels their annual offshore drilling safety awards, where BP was a finalist.

Finding Light in Dark Times

In light of this unbelievably horrific Deepwater incident, we must redouble our efforts to pursue alternatives that will reinvigorate our nation’s economy and keep our coastal communities, environments and heritage out of harms way.  When disasters like this strike, we must take the opportunity to remember just how dirty and dangerous these fuel choices are, and that we have alternatives right at our fingertips.  This catastrophe underscores just how vulnerable our energy economy is and that if we don’t diversify our portfolio with clean, reliable energy then we are only setting our nation up for more disasters like Deepwater.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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