I’m used to being goaded by my buddy Ned.
He’s an oilman and a geologist. And though his studies grew from the love of nature that he imparted as we paddled Appalachian rivers when we were kids, Ned has nowadays taken to poking fun at environmentalists.
Climate change is unproven, he insists — an argument I’d understand were I a scientist like he. American consumers, he complains, are hypocrites when it comes to petroleum: They slurp up gasoline like water and they whine when it’s expensive; but all the while they complain about our dependence on foreign suppliers and want to limit drilling in huge parts of North America.
Hypocrisy is Ned’s bete noir, and I’m with him on that.
Now, not-in-my-backyard opponents of an offshore wind farm near Nantucket Island in Massachusetts are giving Ned fodder for a new taunt. "What,” he asked in an e-mail, “is the proper environmentalist to do?”
To which I had the perfect rejoinder: “Just thank your lucky stars it's not a sinking BP oil rig.”
Ouch. That hurt more than I realized. It turns out that Ned — and lots of other oil people — are worried that BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will shift the ground under the domestic oil industry. And not in the direction they thought it had been going. The most obvious loser — aside from fish, birds, coastal ecosystems, tourism and the seafood industry — is offshore oil drilling.
What ironic timing. Yielding to the mindless rants of the “drill, baby, drill” crowd, President Obama had announced plans just last month to open vast swaths of the Gulf and off the Eastern Seaboard to oil prospecting. And in hopes of winning Republican support for his energy independence/climate change bill, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., had agreed to incorporate expanded offshore drilling into the legislation.
Now, the president has put those new drilling permits on hold. And in a perverse Washingtonian twist, the spill makes it less likely that a climate bill will pass this year, because Republicans still insist that drilling be part of the legislation, while anti-drilling senators have stiffened their opposition.
Such short-term political changes may be just the tip of the proverbial sunken oil rig, however. Deepwater Horizon’s effect could spill well beyond offshore drilling and over to the domestic oil industry as a whole.
Ned likens the disaster to another famous industrial accident in the energy industry. The partial meltdown in 1979 at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant was caused by a combination of human error and equipment failure, which appears to have been the deadly combination at work at the BP drilling site. And just as with the current spill, the nuclear accident occurred despite industry assurances that multiple safeguards would prevent any such accidents.
“We’re gonna pay dearly for this,” Ned predicted in a conversation after our e-mail. “This is Three Mile Island for our industry.”
Three Mile Island crippled the American nuclear industry’s ability to finance new plants for three decades (nukes are only now showing new signs of life, but one can’t help but be reminded by the Gulf spill that energy companies’ assurances of safety don’t have a great track record).
I was taken aback by the extent to which Ned thought the spill will hurt domestic drillers -- even the onshore ones. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past 25 years, it’s that Ned know his business. And now there was anxiety in his voice over the future. It ran from such nitty gritty concerns as negotiating with property owners over drilling rights to long-term worry that regulations could dramatically increase costs and uncertainty. Plus, he was angry that a major operator could be sloppy enough to let such an accident occur.
“We’ve been telling people that this couldn’t happen,” he said. “Now, why are they going to believe us?”
As with so much in the U.S. energy sector, the law of unintended consequences could take effect here. I’d like it to be more difficult to get oil out of the ground, but it’s hard to disagree with my friend when he points out that our oil-exporting pals in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela will be more than happy to increase production to pick up the slack.
The root of the problem is our addiction. And until we make all oil more expensive by forcing people to pay for the many messes it causes at the pump, that addiction will only get worse -- no matter where the oil comes from.
Plus, of course, we need alternative sources of energy. Which makes me think of a more direct answer to Ned’s original question: What’s a proper environmentalist to do about that proposed Massachusetts wind farm? Bring it on, baby. Bring it on.