THE BLOG
07/05/2010 11:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What is the Value of a Clean Future for the Gulf?

According to estimates by the Flow Rate Technical Group, the team advising the government on the giant leak in the Gulf of Mexico, some 45-130 million gallons of oil have been spilled as of this July 4 weekend; projected to reach 60-200 million gallons by mid-August. And that's only the oil. BP confirmed on May 21 that the well is also leaking methane gas. But did you know that the U.S. consumes approximately 840 million gallons (20 million barrels) of oil per day - a little over 35 million gallons per hour? That means all the damage done to our fragile Gulf coast and its economy was in a failed effort to satisfy some 2-6 hours worth of our national oil needs.

Unfortunately, with the near-complete lack of disaster planning in the permitting and drilling process, we don't know what to do to prevent oil from hitting our shores, how to clean it up, or how to prevent this from happening again. Further, we can barely assess the impact of the gas leak, which is receiving scant media attention.

This tragedy raises profound and urgent questions on social, economic, environmental, legal, political and technological fronts with respect to two crucial issues: the true cost to society of extracting a scarce and toxic resource, and the folly of relying on traditional command and control structures to serve the public interest. Each of these is a severe problem on its own, but when you combine them and add the rank incompetence, corruption and criminal negligence reported since April 20, you get something like the situation we are in now. We can and must do better for ourselves, and future generations.

Government and corporations have repeatedly proven themselves inadequate in preventing or responding to the causes and effects of oil spills. There are simply too many moving parts and no one person or organization can have all the answers.

On top of that, the "true costs" of oil (what economists call "externalities"; items that directly or indirectly force society to bear their real expense, rather than the private organization or government agency that reaps the rewards of its commerce) are too high compared to the world we could create from by avoiding them and investing in a clean energy future. Apart from the costs and risks of a disaster like the BP spill, a 2005 study prepared for the Department of Energy estimates that our oil dependency has cost us $8 trillion dollars since 1970, - over $600 million a day - and the study recognizes this does not account for many of oil's political, military, strategic, environmental, social and other economic costs.

We as a society should recognize our shared responsibility as oil consumers for contributing to this situation, and agree to solve the multiple problems our consumption creates. Accepting responsibility, we can then work to organize our vast collective knowledge towards restoring the Gulf environment, society and economy and chart a relentless course into a clean and safe energy future- high level goals that most reasonable people share, even if they disagree on how to achieve them.

Specifically, an up-and-coming generation of diverse thinkers and leaders, armed with network technology, can intelligently evaluate the best way to serve a common agenda. The public interest has suffered at the hands of ossified and opaque authoritarian structures acting on incomplete and insular information. In a new era of information and cooperation, we are better served by comprehensively considered, collectively wise decisions that arise from well-organized, open and transparent collaborative online efforts.

Fortunately, a simple process for this type of value and goal based decision-making is possible right now. From my perspective as Managing Director of the URSULAproject, the Gulf tragedy and the path towards resolution is a microcosm of what we seek to enable on a global level. URSULA is a business intelligence methodology and system developed to allow us to measure and quantify unlimited data against a goal, and could be utilized for exactly this type of problem. The system would drive better decisions and right actions with respect to the Gulf clean up and to our oil and fossil fuel dependency in general. We are seeking funding now to build out the technology.

First, a large, open and diverse community of experts from various research groups, non-profits, universities, government and non-government agencies, among others, would collaborate to create a strategy map, starting with the highest vision and articulating a decision tree for subsequent action, integrating everyone's goals and points of view. A top-level agenda of serving all life in the Gulf could be broken into tiers that include but are not limited to the gigantic effort to clean the spill and the transition to a safe and clean energy future.

The community would then rank any potential action or investment -from oil dispersant to energy policies - against how well it supports the larger vision. The system would calculate and score the best solution options, providing a rational basis of how and why each action or investment serves our goals; in effect, helping us realize an optimal path forward.

Next, our community could leverage work by environmental and social economists to validate and integrate our knowledge of the true costs of the spill. The system processes data transparently, so that impacts such as containment and cleanup methods, loss of life and injury, lost income and value for affected businesses and consumers, damage to natural resources, victim and taxpayer funded litigation, and public infrastructure repair can be accrued and dynamically updated as our understanding of the details becomes better quantified. Along with data on healthier alternatives, we could provide economic justification for the solutions called out on our optimal path.

Transitioning away from these true costs would automatically contribute to a net true value of a healthy Gulf region and beyond. In other words, imagine if in addition to the new markets, jobs and opportunities from a "green collar" economy, we also avoided the negative health effects of pollution, job losses for fishermen, irreparable harm to our fragile ecosystems and so on - what would all that be worth?

Our system enables a vigorous, open collaboration of multiple stakeholders with diverse knowledge, and yields an ever more complete and credible path to a cleaner and safer future. Such an approach is timely, necessary, logical, inclusive, technologically and economically viable, and moreover is the most practical and direct route to the imagined and desired vision of a restored healthy Gulf region and a thriving U.S. clean energy economy.

Together we are all responsible for our situation; together we are stakeholders in finding our way out of it; together we can solve the problem and allow a future that serves all life in the Gulf and America as a whole.

We hope you will join us at www.ursulaproject.org