On "Drill, Baby, Drill!"

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

Last week's tragic and destructive "Deepwater" oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should be a reminder of more serious national issues. Given the massive amounts of public attention paid to our national energy dependency, one would think Americans by now would have a pretty sound understanding of the issues and possible solutions.

Think again. Most Americans have no idea that we consume five times as much oil per capita than the rest of the world (nearly 25% of the world total), even after all the public debates over energy policy and oil exploration in the Arctic. With this oft-cited fact in mind, it would come as a shock to most Americans that despite our heavy consumption, a third of the oil we consume is produced domestically. Politicians understate and overstate the issue depending on their side of the aisle, with neither side doing it justice. The fact is, very few people understand the amount of oil exploration that goes on in the Gulf, and those who do almost never put it in perspective.

During the 2008 campaign, the Right (led by poster girl Sarah Palin) ran under the slogan "drill, baby, drill!" The words represented a craving for self-sufficiency, as well as isolationism. The ANWR debate of the early 2000s left most Americans under the impression that we had vast reservoirs of oil buried right off our shores. Based on the facts in the air, it seemed the only rational choice to drill. But the facts were wrong. Drilling has been banned off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts not because of evil Federal Meddling, but because the states on those seaboards forcefully rejected it at every opportunity. The costs to the ecology, the scenery, and everything else would simply outweigh the benefits.

Things are different off of Texas and Louisiana. The Gulf has always been open for oil exploration, and between oil and toxic industrial/agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River has become one of the most polluted bodies of water on the planet. Before last week's disastrous spill, there was already a growing dead zone in the Gulf--several hundreds of square miles in area--where the water was too toxic to sustain any life.

Oil in the Gulf, even before Obama's blank check for exploration, is not an unlimited resource. Yet, legislators use it as a crutch. Our supposedly vast domestic supplies allow us to take the easy way out, ending our dependency on foreign oil (how tired those words are!) without making the sacrifices to actually change the way we power our nation. "Drill, baby, drill" only postpones for a few years the inevitable and painful transition to a green economy.

The drilling euphoria--something Obama has unfortunately been caught up in--is more than just a misreading of the facts. It is a powerful symbol of the short term results-driven thinking that just eighteen months ago led speculators to bet our economy over a cliff. It is a calculus of instant gratification, of noisy and feel-good development, of a handsome profit in the next earnings report. It is a sense that a free market let loose can do no evil and use scarce resources indiscriminately. From both political and policy perspectives, the "drill, baby, drill" plan is a cheap tactic for short-term points masquerading as long-term planning.

Politico reports that offshore drilling is "dead on arrival" in Washington, but it's worth noting that even after the spill's devastation became clear, Obama refused to back off. He continued to push for drilling off our coasts. After all the talk of offshore drilling being a panacea that would bring Republicans to the table and improve his energy creds. It looked like here Obama had a rare opportunity for genuine bipartisanship, and genuine, public bipartisanship is the administration's Holy Grail. He and his advisors were so caught up in the politics of a midterm election that they refused to drop the issue after a setback. Obama's embarrassing decision to stay the course on drilling only convinced me further that the plan was a losing strategy.

This spill rightly comes as a shock to our nation. I've been twice to Louisiana. I've toured the Bayou and New Orleans, and I can only imagine the horrendous consequences for a fragile region and ecology that are only slowly recovering. Tourism will suffer, and many will be pushed back into poverty. As in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, the taxpayer will probably end up paying for most of the cleanup. The spill will show us how vulnerable our coastal communities really are.

But more than anything, it is a sign like the ones we studiously ignored in the delirious run-up to financial catastrophe. It is a flashing warning light (as if we needed another one) that our actions have consequences and that instant gratification fails as a long-term strategy. Today, Congress and Wall Street thrive on this short-term thinking. After this recession, when so many Americans have suffered so acutely for our mistakes, we have yet to see a change in thinking.

We are psychologically in the same place we were two years ago, and we have still not given up on the dream of the free lunch.

This spill will be as messy as any, but soon it will fade from public view without a whisper, just as Haiti did. The cultural pathology will remain: social pressure to live in the moment and plan only for the short-term. History tells us that this is a path for failure, and staying the course will yield us the same results.

I fear for my country and its leadership. I fear that we have lost the ability to learn from our mistakes, and that even after this Great Recession, nothing has changed.