When 'Drill, Baby, Drill' Leads to 'Spill, Baby, Spill'

Last week I wrote about how Congress allowed the 26-year-old federal offshore drilling moratorium to expire, but I noted that the issue is not a done deal.

Lo and behold, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, was quoted in a Greenwire story today that revisiting the lifting of the oil and gas bans will be the first order of business when Congress returns next year.

"We will be conducting extensive oversight hearings on the lifting of moratoria on offshore drilling," Congressman Rahall said.

That's good news and a smart move.  It's a safe bet that many people who falsely believe that drilling will lower gas prices will think twice about the issue once they realize that, as it stands now, drill rigs could be located as close as 3 miles off their beloved beaches.  That may be okay for folks in petrol-states like Texas and Louisiana, but not necessarily for people who enjoy the pristine beaches - and healthy tourism-based coastal economies - in places like California and up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Indeed, I doubt that most of those chanting "drill, baby, drill" over the summer were even thinking of the potential consequences - "spill, baby, spill" - for their local shoreline.

Consider what happened during the most recent hurricane that ravaged the Gulf Coast.  The Sarasota Herald Tribune reports tremendous spills and infrastructure damage in the wake of Hurricane Ike.

With a storm surge only about half the size that forecasters had predicted, Ike still managed to cripple nearly three dozen offshore platforms while completely destroying 52.  (Recall that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed twice as many platforms, plus over 100 pipelines, in 2005.)  Aside from the oil supply disruption and related pollution from the damaged and destroyed oil rigs, Ike spilled an estimated 500,000 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and the marshes, bayous and bays of Louisiana and Texas - primarily from onshore facilities, tanks and other oil industry infrastructure.

Just imagine how much worse it likely would have been had the storm surge been 20-feet, as anticipated, instead of 12-feet?  Are people really willing to accept that risk off or on the coast of Florida, Virginia or New Jersey?  And for so little gain, since expanded offshore drilling is not expected to make a dent in prices at the pump?  Let's not forget that hurricanes are an annual occurrence - and they're likely to get bigger and more violent due to global warming - so it should give pause to anyone who wants new drilling to take place off America's shores.

Now I realize that pointing out the seemingly obvious threat of offshore drilling is not the preferred message when it comes to engaging the public in a discussion during this time of energy crisis.  But I honestly believe that most people who now indicate stronger support for drilling are dealing in the abstract notion that spills are rare, that technology for extracting oil is safer, or that out of sight is out of mind.  Reminding them what's at stake seems like a logical step.

Then again, others may disagree - and prefer that we avoid engaging in a debate over drilling when the conversation should focus on the bigger picture, namely the need to move beyond the role of dirty fossil fuels in favor of delivering on the promise of a clean energy future. My esteemed colleague and NRDC communications expert, Daniel Hinerfeld, certainly thinks so.  And I take his point. 

But as someone who lives in a coastal state, loves the ocean and abhors the idea of my favorite beach covered in black ooze, I admit that I'm having a hard time letting go of the drilling debate.  What about you?