As we look back at the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it is time to ask why we are drilling in such risky places when there is oil available elsewhere. The answer lies in the mantra NIMBY—“not in my backyard.”
BP was drilling for oil in five thousand feet of water in the Mississippi Trench, more than forty miles off the Louisiana coast. The site was leased in March 2008 from the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service. The area is one of an increasingly limited number of places available for oil and gas development in the United States.
Because most private lands have been explored, public lands offer the most potential for oil and gas development. However, the NIMBY principle has significantly restricted development on those lands. According to 2008 Energy Department figures, nearly 80 percent of potentially oil-rich offshore lands are off limits to oil and gas development, as are 60 percent of onshore lands.
In my backyard, Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester have introduced a bill aimed at halting oil and gas exploration in the Flathead River drainage area near Glacier National Park. They have already pressured Chevron and ConocoPhillips to relinquish their exploration leases on the land, placing 75 percent of the leases off limits to development.
And, of course, there is the perennially contentious issue of drilling in ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The government estimates that the area could produce 750,000 barrels of oil a day.
Whether more exploration on federal lands would make the United States energy independent is debatable, but more onshore development would certainly be safer. In early June, there was a blowout in western Pennsylvania. Did you see it on the nightly news? No, because it was capped in sixteen hours. The Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that regulates oil and gas production there, recorded 102 blowouts of oil and gas wells since the start of 2006, resulting in ten fires, twelve injuries, and two deaths. None of those made the nightly news, either. The largest oil spill on Alaska’s North Slope in 2006 was from a pipeline leak. It dumped only 6,357 barrels and had no disastrous impacts. (By comparison, by the start of July the gulf oil spill had surpassed 2 million barrels.)
Drilling can be done with greater environmental sensitivity onshore. For many years, the Audubon Society actually allowed oil companies to pump oil from its privately owned sanctuaries in Louisiana and Michigan, but imposed strict requirements on the oil companies so that they would not disturb the bird habitat.
Explaining the process years ago, one sanctuary manager said, “When the cranes punched in, the hard hats have to punch out.” Until the gulf blowout, Audubon was even considering leasing more land for development on the Louisiana coast under such strict terms.
When kids play baseball, there is a risk that windows will get broken. Playing on baseball fields rather than in sandlots, however, lowers the risk considerably. Putting so much onshore land off limits to oil and gas development is like closing baseball parks. More windows will be broken and more blowouts result where they are difficult to prevent and stop.
The problems with BP’s well have increased pressure from environmentalists and the Obama administration for greater emphasis on alternative energy sources. Even if they are successful, this will have only a trivial impact on our unquenchable thirst for fossil fuel.
Enforcement of stricter safety regulation on deepwater drilling may reduce disasters like the recent one in the gulf. But the only real way to reduce the risk of catastrophic spills is to say yes to drilling in our backyard.