Lessons from the leak

So much for ‘Drill, baby, drill!’

It’s amazing how quickly minds change when a disaster occurs. With the British Petroleum explosion and oil leak off the Louisiana coast threatening to become the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, politicians from President Obama on down are changing their tunes.

Obama has announced a thorough review of his proposal, made just a month ago, to open Atlantic offshore areas to oil drilling. And, here in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pulled the plug on the proposed Tranquillon Ridge project, off the Santa Barbara coast, that heretofore he had strongly supported as a way to raise revenues for the state.

Admitting Monday (May 3) that he’d been convinced the project was safe, the governor said, “You turn on television and see this enormous disaster and you say to yourself, why would we want to take that risk?”

Oil is risky business. There are the environmental dangers inherent in drilling it and transporting it and, in the case of shale oil, mining it. And there is political danger in the fact that 20 percent of our oil comes from countries the State Department considers to be “unstable or dangerous.”

It’s illusionary to think we can meet our oil needs through offshore drilling. We have less than 2 percent of the world’s known reserves but use 25 percent of its oil. As Daniel J. Weiss writes for the Center for American Progress, “Even if we drilled off of every beach, and inside every national park, refuge, and forest, we could not produce enough oil to offset our growing demand.”

The fastest, cheapest and most effective way to reduce our petroleum dependency is to use less of it. We need to make our vehicles more fuel-efficient, commercialize electric vehicles, expand plug-in hybrids and develop cleaner, alternative fuels such as advanced biofuels and natural gas. We need to close oil-company tax loopholes, institute an extraction fee in California, and make oil trades more transparent to hold down speculation.

If nothing else, the disaster on the Gulf Coast is reminding us that our oil-based economy is a house of cards.