Offshore Dead End

07/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil rig blowout, the beleaguered advocates of offshore oil drilling cite deep sea petroleum extraction's importance to the economy and national security. In doing so, they are omitting more than half the story, and ultimately, the most important part.

What they are selling us is a short term quick fix at best. Use of the oil gushing out of the ocean's depths is a one time proposition. Exhaust the supply from that source and the jobs and revenue are gone.

So let's place things in their proper perspective in the wake of British Petroleum's (BP) April 20th Deepwater Horizon rig blowout. Yes, the energy industry employs approximately 107,000 workers in the Gulf region and the jobs generate $12.7 billion annually in wages. And yes, more than $127 million worth of oil has been recovered daily by the approximately 90 working rigs in the Gulf. That is until the BP mishap in which 11 workers lost their lives and oil began leaking into the sea at a rate of 5000 barrels a day.

The industry's impact on the regional economy has been significant, but contrast the revenues with the yield from the natural resources threatened by long term damage from the BP oil spill. In the normal course of events, these natural resources are renewable (if given adequate time to regenerate after use), which means they provide permanent employment and an endless stream of revenue. Keep the multiplier effect in mind in regard to the total fish harvest in the Gulf which was recently estimated at $661 million annually. Tourist revenue derived from visitation to the region's pristine beaches is pegged at some $20 billion a year. The vacation industry has created 620,000 jobs resulting in $9 billion in annual wages. Thousands of miles of wetlands act as buffers to hurricane storm surge, help stabilize the coastline, prevent salt water intrusion, and thus protect human communities and wildlife habitat. It is an accomplishment worth countless billions. Some would even argue that it is incalculable in dollars and cents.

On a long term basis, the energy industry clearly can't compete economically with these natural resources.

What about national security? The Gulf's oil and gas are important to our current energy mix, but in a crunch, we can get the fuel elsewhere. On the other hand, if the Gulf region's environment, including its fresh water resources, is devastated over the long term by oil contamination, wetland die-off causes the coastline to disintegrate, and the economy of the Gulf states has no permanent solid foundation, the instability that would follow would invariably detract from our national security.

Most environmentalists grudgingly concede that realistically, oil and natural gas are a significant part of our energy mix for the immediate future. Nevertheless, all offshore drilling should be put on hold until the cause of the BP blowout is identified and the most up-to-date measures to prevent a repeat performance are universally put in place. Once that has been achieved, previously functioning drilling operations should resume, but no new leases should be offered. Why push one's luck when no facility is one hundred percent secure, even with modern technology. Instead, all existing leases on land and sea should be explored before the issuance of any new ones. In the interim, one hopes the transition from fossil fuels to alternative sources of energy, including solar, wind, biomass, and hydro will gain dramatic momentum.

Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist residing in Washington, D.C. and the author of the forthcoming book,
Green Morality, due for publication at the end of the summer.