Learning the right lessons from the Gulf oil spill

Brian Kasal Jun. 8, 2010, 8:00am

Anyone who has ever basked on a sunny Florida beach or devoured a fried oyster poboy in New Orleans has a psychological stake in the successful cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Every single person in America has a financial stake as well, for the oil and natural gas tapped by offshore drilling contribute to almost every aspect of our lives.

It's too early to tell what the long-term consequences of the spill will be. We mourn the loss of the 11 crew members who died in the accident, and we worry about the damage to the Gulf Coast ecosystem and the economic impact on an area still recovering from the hurricanes of 2005. Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana will suffer greatly if their tourism and seafood industries are stifled.

The most adverse consequences, however, are those that are likely to result if the wrong lessons are learned from this incident.

If offshore drilling is scaled back at the very moment when the American public is demanding more of it and political leaders are acquiescing, a golden opportunity to revitalize our economy and reduce our reliance on foreign oil will be lost.

A disaster of this magnitude is startling. It compels us to question the costs and benefits of offshore oil drilling, and rightly so. But a little investigation reveals that the benefits of drilling far exceed the costs.

The first thing you realize is how rare these accidents are. Few people can cite more than two or three similar incidents during the seven decades of offshore drilling. The oil industry has a remarkable record of safety.

The comparison to the airline industry is an apt one. The crash of a jumbo jet commands attention, necessitates investigation, and leads to recommendations for improved safety standards. But it does not stop people from flying. Why? Because reasonable people can recognize that the enormous benefits of air travel far outweigh the minimal risk.

The Deepwater Horizon received a safety award from the U.S. Minerals Management Service in 2009 and passed inspection three times this year. Nevertheless, something went terribly wrong -- and we now must determine, as best we can, what caused the accident and what steps should be taken to minimize the risk of another occurrence.

What we must not do is succumb to the temptation to overreact. We must not operate on the assumption that risk can be eliminated, because it can't. While we strive to make oil spills as rare as possible, we must recognize that, eventually, another will occur and we will again go through this necessary process of review and improvement.

Ships, pipelines, and trucks delivers millions of gallons of oil and natural gas to American homes, farms, and businesses safely every day. On the rare occasions when spills occur, the industry works with regulatory officials to minimize the environmental impact. They try to keep the oil from reaching shore, to clean up as fast as possible, and to protect marine life. The industry invests millions of dollars every year to develop and implement contingency plans for cleanup. The booms, skimmers, and dispersants you've seen in action on the nightly news are all part of its arsenal of recovery.

There are lessons to be learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – lessons that will lead to improved safety standards and expedited cleanup efforts -- and we must learn those lessons. But it is vital to our nation's economy and security that we continue and expand offshore drilling. Abandoning our commitment to long-term energy independence would be a tragic mistake.

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