Oil Spill: After the Commission Report, Letting the Drillers Have Their Say

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Credit: Stephen Wilkes for TIME

It won’t surprise readers of this blog that I agree with the BP Oil Spill Commission that there are serious safety problems with offshore drilling that need to be tackled to prevent another Deepwater Horizon. But the oil industry doesn’t quite see it that way. From the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) response to the commission’s report, from API Upstream Director Erik Milito:

The explosion was a tragic accident that never should have happened. But an accurate assessment must acknowledge all the facts, such as the numerous concrete actions that industry has taken both before and since the accident to identify and implement additional safeguards, as well as the many recommendations made by the industry that have already been adopted by the government and industry.

We hope that the administration recognizes the work already done and the need to rapidly restore vibrancy to the nation’s offshore oil and natural gas production program. Both the nation’s energy security and our recovering economy demand it.

(Interestingly, for all the industry complaints that the Obama Administration’s tightened regulation had brought drilling to a total halt, the API released statistics today showing that there was a 12% increase in the number of wells drilled in the fourth quarter of 2010 compared to the same period the year before.)

To get a good idea of the oil industry’s argument over drilling—not just in regards to the spill, but comprehensively—the man to talk to is John Hofmeister, a former Shell executive and the author of the book Why We Hate the Oil Companies. Hofmeister—now the founder and CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy, an NGO advocating greater access to power—thinks that the commission is stretching the facts to argue that the Deepwater Horizon incident, however grave, is an indictment of the entire oil industry, as opposed to just the companies involved. “Human error is what we have here, but the oil industry is safe,” he says. “The oil industry knows what it is doing.”

What’s refreshing about Hofmeister is that while he believe environmental critics of the oil industry are overstating the risks of drilling—and on top of that, have little idea of what they’re talking about—he acknowledges that deepwater drilling will never be completely safe. He compares drilling to the airline industry. Every year, planes crash, and people die—over 800 passengers and crew in 2010. But people keep flying—knowing there’s a statistically tiny possibility something catastrophic could happen—in part because the benefits of air travel outweigh the risks. So it is for offshore drilling, which provides a major chunk of the U.S. oil supply—and oil is something we can’t live without. “If we want transport that is run on liquid fuels, then we as a public have to accept a certain amount of risk,” says Hofmeister. “It’s a reasonably taken risk.”

That’s one area where we differ. While it’s true that mining hydrocarbons from the bottom of the sea will never be risk-free, it’s hard to look at the regulatory practices of the federal government before the spill, or the pathetically useless cleanup plans of the major oil companies, and think there hasn’t been anywhere near enough effort to reasonably reduce that risk. And even if the engineers who work on offshore rigs are highly trained and capable—which they are—and the equipment itself has backups and failsafes, the simple fact is that if an underwater blowout does occur, we still lack the ability to quickly contain it. If full-scale energy exploration were to expand the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in arctic Alaska—where the weather and water are far rougher than the Gulf, and where the nearest resources are hours away—we’d truly be drilling without a net. “The care and attention used in the Gulf will not be sufficient for the Arctic,” said Reilly today. “That’s it’s own set of problems.”

Still, as Hofmeister points out, the fundamental challenge before us isn’t simply drilling safety or regulatory weakness—it’s the profligate way we use energy, and our almost total lack of a national policy that can deal with this. Every year the U.S. uses more and more imported oil, even as president after president promises to break our addiction. Oil prices are on the way back up, as are gas prices, which just passed $3 a gallon nationally. Until we can do something about our oil habit—either through conservation, a switch to alternatives or both—the battle over drilling and access will just be a sideshow. If we don’t get our oil in the Gulf of Mexico, or in Alaska, we’ll get it somewhere else—possibly a country with considerably weaker environmental regulations.

Hofmeister’s answer is to establish a politically independent national commission that would guide U.S. energy policy, just as the Federal Reserve guides monetary policy. He’d have the U.S. establish a goal of producing 10 million barrels of oil a day, up from the 7 million barrels we produce today—though that’s still just half of what we consume. I don’t agree with him—increasing production by that much would almost certainly mean opening up sensitive areas like arctic Alaska to drilling, or expanding into environmentally damaging oil shale. But Hofmeister is right that we at least have to take energy politics seriously. “If we don’t change the governance of energy, no protections will fix this problem,” he says. The oil spill commission’s report is a good start. Let’s hope it doesn’t end there.

More from TIME on oil policy:

The Meaning of the Mess