Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spill, Baby, Spill

On Twitter today, there was a rush of action on the #spillbabyspill hashtag. That’s after this morning’s NOAA report with a list of bad news about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico:

  1. After looking at the amount of oil floating on the surface, experts decided the rate of oil flow is around 5,000 barrels a day — 5 to 6 times the previous estimates.
  2. Engineers say a second leak point has formed on the sea floor.
  3. The new estimate for containing the oil leak is 3–6 months. That would make this event the largest oil spill ever.
  4. At this point, the best hope for containing the spill is to drill a new well just like the one that failed.
  5. Surface winds are forecast to change direction tonight and blow the oil spill toward shore for the next four days.

Some of the latest tweets are quoting Bill Maher, who today offered the suggestion that it was time for the “Drill, baby, drill” team “to report to the Gulf coast for cleanup duty.”

That’s a quote that gets at the point of this exercise in virtual political chanting. There is an economic policy question in play, which has to do with how much collective risk we want to take to deliver energy. The “Drill, baby, drill” slogan sought to sidestep this question by pretending that nothing bad could happen if we drill for oil anywhere we find it — and if we build some new-technology nuclear power stations, for that matter.

The BP oil spill serves as a reminder that everything that can go wrong eventually will — just in case the Eyjafjallajökull eruption wasn’t reminder enough. Much of this deep-water oil could cost $100–150 a barrel to extract and bring to shore, but this proposition isn’t as simple as paying the money and collecting the oil. We could spend the money and end up spilling the oil, and if it happens that way, we can’t ask for our money back. That’s what risk means.

There are risks involved in every source of energy — even solar panels can be damaged by hailstones — so the way that the United States and most of Europe are living so close to the edge when it comes to energy supply is also a risk. The answer cannot be merely to generate all the energy we know how to, because that maximizes our oil spills, nuclear accidents, and similar events. The appeal of that approach is the promise that we won’t have to change our lifestyles — but that’s a false promise. If the BP oil spill is as bad as forecast, it will mean closing the beaches in the Florida panhandle for the summer — not what we asked for when we said we didn’t want to change anything. It will also mean some Louisiana marsh lands lost — permanently — after oil kills the trees that are holding the land in place. That’s not what we meant by not wanting to change either.

The fact is, we have to change. The message of “Drill, baby, drill” was that we wouldn’t have to change, and it’s a message that looks less than convincing on a night when people in Louisiana are watching for signs of the first oil washing ashore. The message of “Spill, baby, spill” is that we have to decide how we want to change and stop just letting things happen to us, as if we’re the victims of our place in history. Given the way the political process works, though, we can’t collectively face a decision like this in a meaningful way until more than half of people are willing to set their denial aside long enough to engage in the question.

That, in essence, is the message contained in the #spillbabyspill hashtag. It’s a message to whoever will hear it, saying, “Stop pretending there isn’t anything going on. There are some real decisions to be made, as soon as enough people are ready to talk about it.”