Is a Deepwater Drilling Moratorium Smart?

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Government lawyers will be in a federal appeals court in New Orleans today, fighting to reinstate a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. The temporary ban—put in place by President Obama after the BP spill to give a presidential commission time to reevaluate the safety of deepwater drilling—was overturned last month by a federal judge on the grounds that the government hadn’t proved that the economic damage inflicted on the drilling industry by a moratorium was worth the potential safety problems of continued exploration. Administration lawyers will try their luck before a three-judge this afternoon at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The White House—and most environmental groups—responded with outrage after Judge Martin Feldman blocked the drilling moratorium on June 22. They pointed out—rightly, I think—that the clear inability of BP to handle a partially blown underwater well demonstrated that the industry wasn’t able to safely manage the risks of deepwater drilling. As Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson said at a Congressional hearing last month, well blowouts are something the industry “is not well equipped to handle.” That didn’t matter to Feldman, who dismissed the government’s case in a critical 22-page ruling that among other points cited the now familiar case of an airplane crash—after all, Feldman argued, we don’t shut down the entire airline industry after one crash? (How much Feldman, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, might have been influenced by the fact that he had extensive oil and gas investments is unclear—although just about everyone in Louisiana has connections to the oil and gas industry, unless they’re a vampire or something.)

Even though a moratorium will economically hurt the Gulf region—and there’s a risk that deepwater rigs will move to other parts of the world, at least temporarily—I think a timeout makes sense, especially since just about every day we learnhow reckless the industry can be and how incompetent federal oversight has been. With deepwater drilling, the technology to explore seems to have outpaced safety—a pause could give regulators time to catch up. Some green groups, like Oceana, are even calling for a ban on all new deepwater drilling—basically a permanent moratorium. The emotional case is powerful—we’ve seen the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which has caused untold damage to the ecology of the Gulf coast and will surely cost tens of billions of dollars before the reckoning is over.

But Lisa Margonelli—director of the energy policy initiative at the New America Foundation and the author of Oil on the Brain—has a pretty strong counter argument. She notes that for all the attention that the BP oil spill has rightly placed on drilling in U.S. waters, we import most of our oil—61% in May, the month after the accident—and much of that crude comes from countries with far poorer environmental records than we have. We imported 623,000 barrels of oil a day from Nigeria last year—yet as Margonelli shows, that country has suffered spills equivalent to the nearly 11 million gallons lost by the Exxon Valdez every year since 1969. (The chronically unstable Niger Delta has some 2,000 active spills right now.) Oil is a dangerous business nearly everywhere—more than 200 people were killed on Monday when a tanker exploded in the Congo—but it tends to be even worse outside the U.S.

Margonelli isn’t saying that we should just turn a blind eye to the oil industry and let them do whatever they want. But as satisfying as it might be to boycott BP service stations and turn the wrath of God—or maybe just Facebook—on the oil industry, it won’t mean a thing globally unless we attack the final cause: oil dependency. Here’s how Margonelli puts it:

The Deepwater Horizon spill illustrates that every gallon of gas is a gallon of risks — risks of spills in production and transport, of worker deaths, of asthma-inducing air pollution and of climate change, to name a few. We should print these risks on every gasoline receipt, just as we label smoking’s risks on cigarette packs. And we should throw our newfound political will behind a sweeping commitment to use less gas — build cars that use less oil (or none at all) and figure out better ways to transport Americans.:

I covered much the same territory in a cover story for TIME shortly after the accident. I still think a temporary moratorium is absolutely necessary, and I’ll be watching the appeals court in New Orleans this afternoon. (Margonelli also thinks offshore drilling regulation needs an overhaul—check out some of her recommendations here.) But for all the sound and fury in Congress, the courts and the media over the BP spill, if we can’t impact oil demand, all this will be for nothing.