Oil spill may be bitter medicine for US oil dependence

May 31, 2010 — by Arnav Dugar

Oil is being used all around us, from the cars we drive, to the power plants. For the appliances that have become ingrained into our daily routine. We all know the environmental downside to the consumption of oil, yet we just can’t seem to stop using it.

The reason for its ubiquity is simple: it is the cheapest form of energy available. Cheap, at least for Joe Six-Pack, but there lies a hidden cost, waiting to erupt, just as it did with the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The rig sank two days after an explosion killing eleven workers and engulfed the structure in flames on April 20. The spill may easily become the largest disaster in the United States to date because, unlike the infamous 1989 spill where the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaskan waters that spewed 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, the current spill has tapped an entire oil field. The Exxon Valdez leaked its load, but no more than what it was transporting; the Deepwater Horizon has created an underwater oil volcano that will keep erupting until the ruptures are plugged.

It’s almost impossible to estimate the environmental and economic repercussions of this accident. Regardless of the effects of global warming, oil is taking a direct toll on marine wildlife. In addition, the $2 billion seafood industry in Louisiana, for example, is already feeling the full effects of the adulterated seawater. Amid the economic crisis the country is facing, the crisis will have a lasting effect on the country’s quality of life, especially if the slick continues to grow.

Yet the psychological impact of this disaster on the world transcends the relatively tangible financial impact, teaching us a valuable lesson. Just as the Three Mile Island meltdown sent a wave of nuclear phobias through the United States in the 1970s, halting any development in nuclear energy production, the potential of a damaged drilling rig will firmly push legislation away from offshore oil exploration projects.

This reaction, dubbed as the “not in my backyard” syndrome, will reappear among coastal residents near drilling rigs, fearing the same plight as the Louisiana fishermen. But these fears are not going to help solve the problem.

As environmentalists shudder at the slightest notion of the pristine Alaskan coastline doused in a repulsive black slime, millions of barrels of oil are still being imported yearly and often from places where threats to the environment do not receive as much attention as it does in the United States.

In Nigeria, for example, oil spills have become commonplace, happening every year since 1969. In a situation where the impoverished state cannot afford to make environmental considerations, no action can be taken to improve the standards for drilling, not even through foreign aid.

In comparison to the commonplace needs such as food and shelter, things we often take for granted, the environment is a minor issue in such places because it is cheaper for them to lose oil through spills than to invest in their prevention. The lives of many Nigerians are so dependent on the oil they export that there are no margins for safety precautions as they would decrease production and consequently curb revenue.

Simply shifting oil drilling demands away from the United States and placing them on countries that cannot handle the oil demands in an ecologically friendly way is worse for the environment.

Also, this dependence on foreign oil is another contributor to the already excessive net imports into the United States. However, a rise in oil prices due to foreign control over U.S. oil prices may just be the bitter medicine the U.S. needs to move away from a primarily oil based energy industry. This has already been illustrated by the sudden development in alternative energy as a result of the oil price peak in May of 2008. Still, a substantial peak may come too late.

Overall, the implacable human thirst for oil has manifested itself in the Louisiana seafood industry collapse, the environmental damage caused by poor safety standards in places like Nigeria, the economic impact of oil imports, and the Deepwater Horizon crisis itself.

This volcano of oil is not just a message for the United States to ban oil drilling along its coasts, but for the entire world to reduce oil consumption.

Every time a credit card is swiped at a gas station, although invisible to Joe Six-Pack, a much more profound cost is being incurred. Every oil consuming citizen is partially to blame for the disaster, and it is up to each of us to learn from this mistake of ours and move toward more environmentally friendly solutions.

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