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Heeding call for easy oil puts environment at risk

As the 2010 Deepwater Horizon tragedy fades from public concern, its painful lessons seem to have been lost as well.

A year ago this week, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling issued its final report, recommending sweeping changes in the way industry and government manage offshore oil drilling. The bipartisan panel, co-chaired by former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, made 30 broad recommendations aimed at improving the safety of offshore drilling, safeguarding the environment, strengthening oil spill response, advancing well containment capabilities and ensuring financial responsibility.

But few of the recommendations have been implemented. Congress has taken no action at all. And the Obama administration is again charging forward with plans to expand offshore drilling. The administration has approved Shell's plans for exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean for this coming summer, which not only presents significant spill risk but — even if no spills occur — will harm an ecosystem already suffering the disastrous impacts of climate change. And the administration's 2012-17 offshore leasing plan, now out for public review, proposes yet another expansion of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

Our time is up for dealing with the energy and climate crisis. Most reputable scientists say that to avoid climatic, ecological and economic catastrophe, we urgently need to bring atmospheric CO2 concentrations down to less than 350 parts per million. Today we are at 390 ppm and rising. Despite all the feel-good rhetoric on this issue from the Obama administration, its new drilling plan bows to political expediency and proposes more high-risk reliance on carbon-intensive fossil energy for decades to come.

We still waste more than half of the fossil energy we use, although we have the technology to cut energy use and carbon emissions in half. But our hydrocarbon addiction and economy of waste run so deep that there seems little political motivation to change.

The administration's new drilling plan warns that if no additional offshore lease sales are offered between 2012 and 2017, then to compensate, government may need to "favor alternative vehicle fuels such as ethanol or methanol, vehicles with greater fuel efficiency, or alternative transportation methods such as mass transit"; "might mandate increased reliance on ... wind-generated electric power"; and "might give more emphasis to programs encouraging more efficient electricity transmission and more efficient use of gas and electricity in factories, offices and homes."

Of course, that's just the point. These are precisely some of the policy actions that are urgently needed, and it seems clear that government will not pursue them aggressively enough if it simply leaves the door open to easy oil, onshore and offshore. It is time to limit access to new oil development and force society to make the switch to a low-carbon energy economy in time to avert a climate disaster.

Richard G. Steiner, a marine conservation professor at the University of Alaska from 1980 to 2010, works on offshore oil issues, spill prevention, response, damage assessment and restoration, and consults globally on energy and environment issues. He advised nongovernmental organizations in the Gulf of Mexico on a pro-bono basis during the Deepwater Horizon spill.

© 2012 Los Angeles Times

Heeding call for easy oil puts environment at risk 01/11/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 3:32pm]
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