The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: Issues, President Obama, and a Legislative Proposal
Although the wisdom of offshore oil drilling has and continues to generate much heated debate, the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has compelled policy makers and American citizens to question whether the proffered benefits of offshore oil drilling are tangible, illusory, or outweighed by the related costs and risks. A review of the academic literature strongly suggests that the benefits associated with offshore oil drilling are extraordinarily minor and that the debate has become politicized in ways that frame the issues in terms of fear rather than relying on empirical data. To be sure the current economic climate, and political calls to generate more domestic energy production in order to lessen reliance on foreign sources in the Middle East, makes citizens more amenable to requests for offshore oil drilling projects. It has been repeatedly noted in this respect, for instance, that “Skyrocketing fuel prices, unprecedented home foreclosures, rising unemployment, escalating food prices, increasing climate disasters, and the continued war on two fronts have prompted greater public support for renewed offshore drilling for oil” (Baird 13). As the public has become more amenable to offshore oil drilling, politicians and corporations have seized the opportunity to harness this shift in public opinion for both political and economic purposes.
Traditionally, from a political perspective, the Republicans have advocated an expansion of offshore oil drilling whereas the Democrats have basically advocated strict limits or prohibitions on such practices. Ironically, just as President Obama softened his approach to offshore oil drilling and began to adjust his rhetoric to match the public’s fear about the dire state of the economy, the BP oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The question thus raised is whether the Obama administration will succumb to fear in crafting future offshore oil drilling policy or whether it will be able to transcend such fears in order to craft policy based on facts rather than false beliefs. The facts clearly demonstrate that the benefits associated with offshore oil drilling are extraordinarily minor for a country with an economy and land mass as large as America’s and that President Obama is now in a unique position to educate the American public about these illusory benefits so that meaningful legislation may be enacted to deal with offshore oil drilling in the future.
Background: BP Oil Spill Facts and Implications
As a preliminary matter, it is necessary to acknowledge that the fundamental issues involved in the offshore oil drilling debate are hardly novel or of a recent origin; quite the contrary, politicians, academics, and interested citizens have been discussing and refining the core issues for decades. These issues have, in large part, be more clearly defined by such phenomena as rapid population growth, new developments in technology, and the central role that oil and energy plays in attempting to guarantee economic growth in light of these demographic and technological changes. One academic points out, for example, that “one of the most pointed issues affecting the earth in this new millennium is the exploration, production, and conservation of the earth’s natural resources and energy” (Welsh 609). Next to water and food, oil is perhaps one of the world’s greatest concerns and the Gulf of Mexico is of prime geostrategic concern in terms of oil exploration, extraction, and production. Though the science is imperfect, it is estimated that there are nearly four million square kilometers of exploitable area in the Gulf of Mexico and further that this area “has been described as ‘one of the foremost petroleum provinces in the world” (Welsh 609). It is hardly surprising therefore that energy-oriented corporations have been and remain keen to exploit these offshore oil drilling opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico. What is somewhat surprising, on the other hand, is the fact that prior to the BP oil spill the Obama administration demonstrated an unusual willingness for a Democratic administration to tolerate and even encourage some types of offshore oil drilling. This was clearly a political decision, motivated by campaign promises made while debating rival John McCain for the presidency, and it is well-established that during the campaign President Obama “withdrew his opposition to additional offshore oil drilling, essentially embracing his rival’s energy stance, which is credited in part with pumping up Sen. John McCain’s poll numbers” (“Obama Accepts Offshore Drilling;” A01). What emerges from a review of the political debate regarding offshore oil drilling is a callous political decision by President Obama to abandon his factually-based opposition to offshore oil drilling in order to become more politically popular with respect to an issue that the American public was suddenly interested in because of economic stagnation. Previously, President Obama had advocated offshore energy production based on solar energies and wind; indeed, he was planning to renew a moratorium against many types of offshore oil drilling until he made the purely political decision to allow the moratorium to lapse in order to sooth irrational fears held by some members of the American public (“Can These Replace Coal-Fired” 4). Rather than sticking to principles, rather than relying on the empirical data he knew to be true, President Obama instead sacrificed this important issue in order to score political points. The BP spill clearly illustrates the dangers associated with offshore oil drilling. The BP oil spill, ostensibly caused by an explosion, has created the largest oil spill in history and will necessitate the largest cleanup in history. In addition, dozens of federal and state agencies are involved in the cleanup in one respect or another leading to a tremendous waste of human and financial resources. Worse, the effects of the BP oil spill on other fundamental resources such as air, food, and water are extreme and potentially catastrophic. The effects include a decrease in air quality, the destruction of seafood, and water pollution that has caused fishing bans in states as far away as Mississippi and Florida (“Deepwater BP Oil Spill” n.p.). The negative effects of the BP oil spill, in sum, have been and remain pervasive and comprehensive. It is difficult to imagine any benefits that might offset these types of costs when examining the offshore oil drilling debate.
Offshore Oil Drilling an Unnecessary Risk: Facts versus Politics
In order to understand why offshore oil drilling is unnecessary for the American economy and the American standard of living, it is necessary to place domestic oil resources in context. Even the American Air Force, hugely dependent on and interest in maintaining secure supplies of oil for military readiness, openly scoffs at the notion that America needs or significantly benefits from offshore oil drilling. Specifically, in a recent article published in the Air & Space Power Journal, a leading military scholar discussing oil needs argues that “Even if the United States were completely self-sufficient in domestic oil production, it would not remain insulated from oil-supply disruptions in the Middle East or anywhere else. The world market determines the price of oil, a fungible commodity, regardless of its origin or destination” (Fullerton 28). This is a critical point because many Americans and politicians seem to believe that creating a hundred percent domestic oil supply will be economically beneficial and will somehow function to insulate the United States from the rest of the world in terms of energy security, energy prices, and energy production. This type of perverse reasoning can be seen in the type of political rhetoric which was recently reported in The Washington Times providing that “Senate Republicans pressed the chamber’s Democratic majority Monday to drop its opposition to more offshore oil drilling as the average price of gasoline hit a new high of nearly $4.11 per gallon” (“GOP Intensifies Call for” A06). The Senate Republican rationale, that substantial offshore oil drilling will reduce gasoline prices and thereby benefit the economy, is explicitly refuted by the American military which is perhaps America’s fiercest advocate of energy security and considers a vibrant economy an integral feature of national security. It is therefore fair to argue that politicians and corporations pursuing offshore oil drilling are doing so because it is beneficial politically and economically; sadly, even President Obama succumbed to the temptation to score political points at the expense of being honest with the American public about the illusory benefits associated with offshore oil drilling. Though not a Republican, President Obama must share some of the blame for placing politics above a sober examination of the empirical evidence. As a Harvard-trained lawyer he certainly knows better.
Notwithstanding his previous mistakes, President Obama now stands in a unique position with respect to the offshore oil drilling debate. The risks and the costs are clear for everyone to see as a result of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama should educate the people about the misconceptions associated with offshore oil drilling. He should state that oil prices are dependent on international markets and that offshore oil drilling will not impact the American economy in any broadly-based manner. The main beneficiaries of offshore oil drilling are companies such as BP and the politicians who advance their interests and receive political and financial support in return. It is time to return to a moratorium on offshore oil drilling pending significant technological developments that would make it more environmentally friendly.
In the final analysis, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico clearly and unequivocally demonstrates the dangers associated with offshore oil drilling and how political considerations and public fear can create bad public policy. The recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama, sacrificed his principles in a manner that contributed indirectly to perhaps the greatest environmental disaster in American history. He knew that offshore drilling was bad, he changed his mind to improve his poll numbers in the presidential campaign against John McCain, and politics trumped science. There is, however, much more blame to be assigned. Other politicians and even the American public were culpable to be sure. The time has come for President Obama to declare and pursue new legislation barring offshore oil drilling until significant technological developments have occurred to ensure that this type of disaster is never repeated.
Baird, Stephen L. “Offshore Oil Drilling: Buying Energy Independence or Buying Time?.” The Technology Teacher 68.3 (2008): 13+. Questia. Web. 30 May 2010.
“Can These Replace Coal-Fired Power Plants?.” Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL) 7 Apr. 2009: 4. Questia. Web. 30 May 2010.
“Deepwater BP Oil Spill.” The White House President Barack Obama. http://www.whitehouse.gov/deepwater-bp-oil-spill/
Fullerton, Richard. “The Future: Oil, America, and the Air Force.” Air & Space Power Journal 19.4 (2005): 27+. Questia. Web. 30 May 2010.
“GOP Intensifies Call for Offshore Drilling; Reid Touts Anti-Speculation Bill.” The Washington Times 8 July 2008: A06. Questia. Web. 30 May 2010.
“Obama Accepts Offshore Drilling; Congress Exits after Dust-Up.” The Washington Times 2 Aug. 2008: A01. Questia. Web. 30 May 2010.
Welsh, Dabney. “Access to Our Backyard Reserves: A Final Resolution of the Western Gulf of Mexico’s Maritime Boundaries.” Houston Journal of International Law 23.3 (2001): 609. Questia. Web. 30 May 2010.