Sunday, June 20, 2010

A few thoughts on the Gulf spill

In his big address on how he's now going to take the oil spill very seriously, Obama apparently admitted that he had approved new offshore drilling a few weeks before the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion on April 20, but added that he had done so only "under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe."

This was a very stupid thing to say. No one with any credibility, briefing the President, would say such a thing. Working on an oil drilling platform is obviously dangerous work--as is work on any oil drilling rig. Not as bad as working in a coal mine, of which the U.S. has many, "absolutely safe" or not, but pretty bad.

If he was referring to the possibility of major disasters, it may be even more ridiculous to speak of "absolute safety." He almost certainly wasn't told anything like this, and if he was, he almost certainly didn't believe it. So he's either a fool, or he's lying.

Of course, all he's done so far for the people of the Gulf Coast is kill jobs. The moratorium means many drilling rigs will leave U.S. waters, putting Americans out of work and increasing the need of the U.S. to import oil. The rigs that remain will be the older, less safe kind--so if American workers can still get jobs, they will be the unsafe kind, rather than "absolutely safe."

And from Slate, some perspective that we are not getting very much: Louisana's wetlands were toast even before the oil spill, and the attention given to the oil spill might even cause some money to be spent on the problem.

If the wetlands go, Louisiana will go along with them. The state's seafood industry would crater, and every bit of marsh that's lost means a higher storm surge when a hurricane careens through the Gulf of Mexico. But the state's wetlands were dying long before the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Indeed, as you fly over Grand Isle and Barataria Bay, the oil spill seems almost irrelevant. On the helicopter ride over from New Orleans, the Jefferson Parish police officers on board seem less awed by the scope of the oil spill than by the "amazing land loss" in southeastern Louisiana over the last few decades.

As every schoolboy in Louisiana learns, the state loses a football field's worth of wetlands every 38 minutes. The Times-Picayune's edifying and terrifying interactive feature "The Rise and Disappearance of Southeast Louisiana" does a clear, concise job explaining the causes. Levees built to rein in the Mississippi River cut off the supply of sediment needed to replenish coastal land. Canals cut for boat traffic and natural gas pipelines invited in marsh-killing saltwater. And Hurricanes Katrina and Rita accelerated the destruction. The result: Fishing camps that used to be on canals are cut off entirely from land, brown pelicans and white ibis confined to the tiniest of islands, and once-thriving wetlands like Barataria Bay transformed into open water. New Orleans itself, the Times-Picayune warns, could be entirely surrounded by water in 10 years if today's erosion rates continue.

At worst, BP's millions of gallons of oil per day will exacerbate what already seemed like runaway destruction. At best, the oil spill could generate the money and the political will needed to affect substantive change—Jindal has made coastal restoration his cause célèbre and President Obama has vowed "that we're going to be able to leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before."

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