During the summer of 2008, leading up to the presidential election, Republican nominee John McCain scheduled and then abruptly cancelled a meet-cute with the press atop an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana. Despite claims that weather concerns prompted the change in plans, the real reason appeared to be the fact that, nearby, half a million gallons of oil was gushing into the Mississippi River thanks to a tanker accident. The reality about offshore drilling was sullying McCain's political plans, and Barack Obama, the man to whom he lost the election, is now facing a similar inconvenient truth as president.
In March, Obama announced plans to lift the 20-year moratorium on new offshore oil and gas drilling as part of a comprehensive energy policy. Ever the pragmatist (and hopeless romantic, apparently), Obama presumably intended to grease the wheels of an energy and climate bill that faces an uphill battle in Washington thanks to the influence of Big Oil on both sides of the aisle. Most experts agree that, for a nation that represents 20 percent of global oil consumption but is home to just two percent of the world's reserves, the impact of offshore drilling on gas prices would be negligible, but it was part of a political strategy designed to—foolishly, if the stimulus bill, health care reform, and the right-wing response to Obama's announcement were any indication—lure Republicans to the negotiating table.
But Republican opposition is nothing compared to the realities of offshore drilling, which can soil a presidential or legislative campaign with just one spill. Obama promised environmentalists that his move to expand offshore drilling would be done responsibly, but the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico following a deadly oil rig explosion on April 20th, resulting in an environmental and economic catastrophe that could match or even exceed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, has tapped a new wave of concerns about safety and regulation. The malfunction of the blowout preventer on the rig in question, which was leased and run by BP, may have been an isolated incident, but it raises questions about whether the technology even exists to ensure that drilling in both existing and newly leased areas along the East Coast, the Gulf, and Alaska can truly be "safe."
Oilman and John Kerry swift boater T. Boone Pickens took to the cable nets this week to promote both alternative energy and offshore drilling, suggesting that "way too much is being made of the oil that's comin' out there in the Gulf. All of that will get cleaned up." Pickens is apparently unaware that, as of 2007, there were still 26,600 gallons of oil in the Prince William Sound and Gulf of Alaska courtesy of the 21-year-old Exxon Valdez spill. And as I pointed out in my piece about McCain in 2008, there were 124 spills amounting to over 17,500 barrels of oil during the 2005 hurricane season, which included Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Pickens and others have rightfully trumpeted the national security dangers of being reliant on OPEC for energy; even Obama seems to have adopted the everything-on-the-table approach. But whether it's the latest Gulf spill or last month's Upper Big Branch mine disaster in Montcoal, WV, the human, economic, and environment costs of homegrown energy—at least the "dirty" kind—don't seem to be any cheaper or safer.