Last week, the House Natural Resources Committee simultaneously passed three bills intended to expand offshore drilling and hasten the granting of new permits for it. I can’t help but wonder whether we’ve learned nothing at all from the Deepwater Horizon disaster of last year. It’s not as though I expect a complete halt to domestic oil production, but the persistent emphasis on drilling wherever we can whenever we can does seem to come at the expense of basic concerns for safety, foresight, and common sense.
It’s extremely doubtful that even a policy of eliminating all regulations and handing a snorkel and a power drill to everyone who wants them would have a significant impact on either our foreign dependence or our long-term economic strategy. If the motivation behind pushing for sudden, dramatic increases in offshore operations is to decrease our need for petroleum imports, it is worth noting a few things. The share of our oil that comes from domestic sources is about forty-three percent of the 700 million gallons the United States uses every single day. And it takes a great deal of time to get from drilling to the production of usable fuel, so even if the ocean floor off the American coasts sits atop equivalent oceans of oil, offshore drilling isn’t a solution to the problem, because the problem isn’t with the supply, it’s the demand.
What can we reasonably expect from this new push for offshore drilling? Perhaps we can bring our foreign dependence down from well over half of our oil supply to exactly half. It seems outlandish to think that we can raise our current ten percent share of the world’s production to match our twenty-three percent share of the world’s usage. No amount of drilling will eliminate foreign dependence so long as we’re still consuming oil at such terrific rates. We should have come to collectively understand that by now. And with the nation still emerging from the shadow of last year’s disastrous oil spill, we should understand with even greater clarity that no amount of material benefit from offshore drilling can justify the risk inherent in eschewing safety regulations and insisting that the federal government act on new drilling permit applications within thirty days.
The GOP would be hard pressed to convince me that the possibility of another spill even a fraction the size of Deepwater Horizon constitutes an acceptable risk, when more offshore drilling won’t immediately impact our share of world oil production, won’t significantly impact it even in the long run, and may not do much to bring down gas prices.
The only motivation that I see as justifiable for pushing for fast and frequent offshore drilling is to get those who rely on it back to work. One of the secondary consequences of the oil spill was the volumes of people put out of work, in part by the subsequent drilling moratorium. Estimates about the new drilling legislation suggest that it could create as many as 250,000 jobs over seven years in Louisiana, where seventeen percent of the state’s entire workforce is employed by the oil industry, with many of them currently out of work.
An expansion and hastening of offshore drilling is an opportunity to get those people back to work, but it doesn’t have to be the only option. There are volumes of underutilized industries in the country, which could provide necessary alternatives to the petroleum industry, as well as drawing on a labor force that is desperate to get back to work. Put both the land and the people back to work by developing bamboo as the new cash crop for the South. Rich, fertile land sits untilled and ignored while the oceans are mined but that land could produce a raw material able to make bamboo and bamboo textile production a viable domestic industry here in the U.S. There is no justification for putting our coastal environments at newly increased risk for the sake of putting people to work, when that same manpower could be utilized to build a better future by way of building electric cars, wind turbines, and solar panels, or by being employed to produce biofuels, or weatherize homes, or heat them with geothermal energy. And beyond all that, there are various other green resources and technologies which will not directly affect our oil dependence, but may become increasingly popular and profitable industries as we make a transition to a greener, more renewable society. But so long as we continue to ignore the seemingly obvious lessons of the past and push back towards the old ways of doing things, I fear that we will never get there.