Editorial: Rethinking the push for oil

As the success of British Petroleum’s most recent ploy to stop the flow of oil gushing into the Gulf Coast remains in doubt and the volume of the oil spill far greater than originally estimated, the political fall-out is predictable — and necessary.On Thursday, President Barack Obama announced the government was suspending work on 33 exploratory oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico; imposed an additional six-month moratorium on new permits for deepwater oil and gas wells; temporarily halted planned exploration in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska; cancelled a planned August lease sale in the western Gulf of Mexico as well as a proposed lease sale off the coast of Virginia. The president had also previously announced the formation of a commission to study how to improve oversight of the oil industry and improve safety. But, as the president admits, tougher action in the future can’t undo what is already the nation’s worst oil spill and environmental disaster.What the blown oil well demonstrates is that the oil industry has been gambling with the world’s environment in exchange for huge profits. It didn’t have to be that way. Tougher regulations here at home and around the world could have encouraged the oil industry to develop more stringent safeguards — regulations that might have prevented this disaster and may have saved the industry from itself and saved BP a bundle of money that it will spend cleaning up the disaster.What the Obama administration has discovered is that the regulatory agencies in charge — inherited from the culture established in the George W. Bush administration — were far too cozy with the industry. The lax regulation and what President Obama called “corrupt” ties to the industry were being addressed by the administration, but not fast enough. As a result, the current head of the Minerals Management Services, S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, resigned from her post last Thursday.“Obviously, (changes) weren’t happening fast enough,” he said in a press conference last Thursday. “If they were happening fast enough, this might have been caught.”But just as the administration has admitted fault in not doing more to change a corrupt culture, the industry would do itself a favor by admitting that it oversold its assurances to the administration and to Congress and then pledge to dedicate more resources to improving the safety of drilling in deep water before further development is allowed.As it is, the oil industry’s ability to drill off sensitive shores will be severely curtailed for the next several years because of the change in politics and the public’s reaction to this disaster. While 64 percent favored more offshore drilling in 2008, only 45 percent do now, according to CBS poll conducted this week, which also noted that those who considered offshore drilling too risky to undertake at all, increased from 28 percent two years ago to 46 percent today.What most Americans know today is that burning fossil fuels — and particularly relying on oil as a driver of our economy — must change and change quickly. That we have to level the tops of hills in West Virginia for coal, or perk the tar sands of Alberta, or drill a mile deep off our shorelines is testament to the declining resource and to the environmental dangers we embrace to meet our energy needs. We know we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and develop alternative sources of energy.Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to impose a ban on offshore oil drilling of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and will introduce such legislation next week. But more important is his call for American automobiles to hit a 55-miles-per-gallon standard in fuel efficiency, rather than the 20-plus mpg the auto industry has to currently meet. But what President Obama is also pragmatic enough to state is that we are years away from being able to wean ourselves from our oil addiction. About 30 percent of the nation’s total domestic oil and natural gas production comes from operations in the Gulf of Mexico, he said.“It has to be part of an overall energy strategy,” Obama said, “I mean, we’re still years off and some technological breakthroughs away from being able to operate on purely a clean-energy grid. During that time, we’re going to be using oil.”That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue alternative sources with a greater sense of urgency and greater subsidies, but it does mean that we’ll be drilling in deep waters for the near future and the immediate need is to impose tougher regulatory standards, and hold the oil industry accountable for its mistakes and all clean-up costs.-Angelo S. Lynn

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