Whatever the magnitude of the spill at the Deepwater Horizon rig, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, it is unlikely to seriously impede offshore drilling in the Gulf. The country needs the oil - and the jobs.
- Jad Mouawad, analyst The New York Times, May 2
Ecologically, the hits just keep on coming.
First an earthquake shatters Haiti. Then a mine shaft blows up in West Virginia. A little later, a long-dormant volcano erupts in Iceland, grounding European air traffic for days.
Then an oil rig explosion fouls the Gulf of Mexico, menacing hundreds of miles of U.S. coastline. And before we can even digest that, the rain-swollen Cumberland River drowns Nashville, Tenn.
On Monday, three of those disasters overlapped, giving video newscasts the look of a "2012" preview. In quick succession, you could see oil smothering a gulf, a volcano melting a glacier, and floodwater submerging a city.
What will tomorrow bring?
Of these recent disasters, the oil blowout off Louisiana seems the most ominous to me. It's also a contender for most ironic, having occurred two days before the 40th Earth Day. Graybeards will recall that another oil rig disaster catalyzed the first Earth Day.
That was in Santa Barbara in 1969. Before then, beachgoers and coastal residents paid little heed to the offshore oil rigs that dotted U.S. horizons. But when an explosion at an offshore platform sent 4.2 million gallons of crude oil blooping ashore to tar 40 miles of Southern California's coastline, the nation took notice.
The Santa Barbara disaster had some notable repercussions. It tabled oil industry plans for further West Coast drilling. It sparked a long-overdue (though short-lived) call for nationwide energy conservation. And it turbocharged an "environmental movement" that had been sputtering along since Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" appeared in 1962.
What it did not do was slake the nation's thirst for oil. In the 40 years since Santa Barbara, the New York Times reports, U.S. demand for oil has surged 35 percent while domestic production has dwindled by a third. As a result, oil imports have doubled since 1969. The U.S. now imports more than 12 million barrels of oil a day - about two-thirds of its needs.
In a "News Hour" public TV faceoff with a Greenpeace official Monday evening, a petroleum industry spokeswoman acknowledged that the April 20 British Petroleum (BP) blowout off Louisiana "was not anticipated." But she then repeated a corporate mantra that has held true for a century: So long as there's a profitable demand for oil, the industry will provide it. Environmental pollution is just one of the risks of doing the nation's business.
To locate the source of that ever-growing demand for oil, Americans need only look in the mirror. Despite the surging economies of India, China, Brazil and various other global "tigers," the U.S. remains by far the world's most voracious consumer of petroleum products. Nearly all of us pump gas into our vehicles.
Until and unless that demand abates, oil will continue to foul the environment, whether as a result of drill rig blowouts or maritime disasters like the grounding of the supertanker Exxon Valdez. That 1989 accident dumped a quarter of a million barrels of oil into Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound, tarring the region's wildlife and crippling its fishing and shellfish industry. Exxon promised to make good on damage claims, but its lawyers subsequently tied up creditors in court for a tidy 20 years.
Early indications are that British Petroleum will pursue a similar course. At the same time it was vowing to pay for damages and losses from the Louisiana blowout, BP reportedly offered $5,000 apiece to Gulf Coast shrimpers willing to waive their rights to sue the company.
That doesn't bode well for the next 20 years.
Barring some technological miracle in the next few days, the Louisiana blowout seems certain to dwarf all previous domestic spills. The prospect of vast damage to the Gulf Coast environment and to the region's fishing and tourist industries already has President Obama backing off earlier plans to expand deep-sea drilling in the Gulf and along the Atlantic seaboard.
But as astute environmental advocates have pointed out, restricting U.S. oil production without curbing demand will simply outsource future biohazards to Nigeria, Venezuela, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. suppliers already rife with oil catastrophes of their own.
There are really only two things we can do. The first is to accelerate research, development and implementation of renewable energy systems like the Cape Cod wind farm authorized last week.
The second - and far more effective - course is to do what President Jimmy Carter futilely counseled back in 1976.
We need to face reality, conserve energy, and dial down on our collective comfort zone.
"2012" is just around the corner.
* Tom Stevens is a freelance writer whose "Shave Ice" column appears every Wednesday. Send e-mail to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.