A little perspective instead of indignation regarding the BP oil spill. From The Wall Street Journal:
The infrequency of big spills is extraordinary considering the size of the offshore oil industry that provides Americans with affordable energy. According to the Interior Department’s most recent data, in 2002 the Outer Continental Shelf had 4,000 oil and gas facilities, 80,000 workers in offshore and support activities, and 33,000 miles of pipeline. Between 1985 and 2001, these offshore facilities produced seven billion barrels of oil. The spill rate was a minuscule 0.001%.
According to the National Academy of Sciences—which in 2002 completed the third version of its “Oil in the Sea” report—only 1% of oil discharges in North Americas are related to petroleum extraction. Some 62% of oil in U.S. waters is due to natural seepage from the ocean floor, putting 47 million gallons of crude oil into North American water every year. The Gulf leak is estimated to have leaked between two million and three million gallons in two weeks.
It is worth noting that this could have been worse. The Exxon Valdez caused so much damage in part because the state of Alaska dithered over an emergency spill response. Congress then passed the 1990 Oil Pollution Act that mandated more safety measures, and it gave the Coast Guard new powers during spill emergencies. We have seen the benefits in the last two weeks as the Coast Guard has deployed several containment techniques—from burning and chemical dispersants to physical barriers. America sometimes learns from its mistakes.
On the other hand, Washington’s aversion to drilling closer to shore has pushed the industry into deeper, more difficult, waters farther out to sea. BP’s well is 5,000 feet down, at a depth and pressure that test the most advanced engineering and technology. The depth complicates containment efforts when there is a disaster.
As for a drilling moratorium, it is no guarantee against oil spills. It may even lead to more of them. Political fantasies about ending our oil addiction notwithstanding, the U.S. economy will need oil and other fossil fuels for decades to come. If we don’t drill for it at home, the oil will have to arrive by tanker and barges. Tankers are responsible for more spills than offshore wells, and those spills tend to be bigger and closer to shore—which usually means more environmental harm.
The larger reality is that energy production is never going to be accident free. No difficult human endeavor is, whether space travel or using giant cranes to build skyscrapers. The rest of the world is working to exploit its offshore oil and gas reserves despite the risk of spills. We need to be mindful of such risks, and to include prevention and clean up in the cost of doing business, but a modern economy can’t run without oil.