One year ago this week—just in time for Earth Day, no less—an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig triggered “the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry”. For three months, the world watched in horror as the oil slick mushroomed out of control, causing extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats (along with the Gulf's fishing and tourism industries) while shining a spotlight on the real hazards of deep-sea oil drilling and our continued dependence on fossil fuels.
We all know catastrophes of a certain magnitude ignite a burst of indignation and public discourse: Accusations of ineptitude fly, while “the powers that be” pledge to rectify past mistakes and chart a new course for the future. Sadly, more often than not, a check-in 6 to 12 months later reveals nothing more than a return to the status quo. The grand pronouncements have become hollow promises and the scars of the past have been neatly erased or reframed to justify current context.
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a six-month moratorium on offshore drilling was initiated by the White House and enforced by the United States Department of the Interior. That didn’t stop a consortium of oil companies from challenging the restrictions, and after a spate of court decisions, the moratorium was quietly lifted in October of last year, just in time for midterm elections. In a statement justifying the White House’s decision, Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said, “More needs to be done, but we believe the risks of deepwater drilling have been reduced sufficiently to allow drilling under existing and new regulations.”
I know about 34,000 birds and hundreds of miles of fragile coastline that beg to differ.
None of us should be surprised by this outcome. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico accounts for 23.5% of U.S. oil production. Additionally, American dependence on imports grew from 24% in 1970 to 66% in 2008. And while we all know that the Gulf oil spill certainly added an extra urgency to the ongoing debate regarding US offshore drilling policy and the country’s dependence on fossil fuels (and imported oil), fossil fuels are still are primary fuel source.
So what do you think? When discussing Deepwater Horizon last year, I wondered if we should shift our focus from “extreme energy” to extreme efficiency, saying it is “only by reducing demand that we can really begin to make inroads into our dependence on fossil-based fuels and their extreme energy cousins.” But are we doing enough to make this happen?