Deep Sea Drilling Rules and the Transition from Fossil Fuels

04/13/2015 08:47 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

The Department of the Interior will soon issue rules for new (not existing) oil drilling operations set to be released on the 5th anniversary of the deadly explosion of a BP oil drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Coral Davenport of the New York Times:

The rule is expected to tighten safety requirements on blowout preventers, the industry-standard devices that are the last line of protection to stop explosions in undersea oil and gas wells...It will be the third and biggest new drilling-equipment regulation put forth by the Obama administration in response to the disaster. In 2010, the Interior Department announced new regulations on drilling well casings, and in 2012, it announced new regulations on the cementing of wells. The latest regulation, a result of several years of study, will be imposed on all future offshore drilling equipment and will be used by the administration to make the case that it can prevent a BP-like disaster as oil exploration expands in the Atlantic.

The government blames the Gulf oil spill on BP and BP blames the explosion on its contractors. BP and its contractors were irresponsible, yes, but I hold the government accountable. In my view, the disaster was actually caused by government's regulatory failure that was a result of the mismanagement and regulatory "capture" of the Department of Interior. The now reorganized Minerals Management Service (MMS) was responsible for generating revenues by leasing federal lands for mining, or drilling, and then regulating the same mining operations it sold leases to. That is an inherent conflict of interest, but it gets worse: The MMS was a revolving door for fossil fuel companies. People left the organization to work in the fossil fuel industry and the Department of Interior depended on the industry for expertise in regulating mining operations.

While the situation has improved under the Obama Administration, it is unlikely that the resource-starved federal government has the technical and organizational capacity to keep up with technological advances in the deep sea drilling industry. The expansion of drilling anticipated by the Administration, and the memory of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, will provide a fig leaf of political cover for the new rules--but the new rules are not enough. The additional drilling will increase the probability of catastrophic spills like the one that took place five years ago.

Although increased drilling and limited organizational capacity in the Department of Interior will increase the probability of further accidents, industry itself has not forgotten the horror of the Gulf oil spill and has been working to improve safety performance. Perhaps for that reason the Department of Interior has not been subjected to the typical level of right wing rhetoric around "job-killing regulations" as they move to issue these new rules. According to Jennifer A. Dlouhy of the Longview (Texas) News-Journal:

While the oil industry may bristle at some of the mandates, the long shadow cast by the Deepwater Horizon disaster likely will force officials to temper their criticism. There were signs of that this past week, as leaders of three major industry trade groups touted safety improvements the sector has voluntarily made since the spill.

New oil supplies will increase burning of fossil fuels and lead to additional accumulations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When coupled with the risk to ecosystems posed by deep sea drilling, it is easy to be uneasy about this regulation. I question the Department of Interior's ability to implement the regulation, and wonder why the Administration continues to pursue this ill advised "all of the above" energy (non-) strategy. Tighter rules are a good idea; additional drilling leases are a bad idea.

I realize that we need to face up to the fact that we are addicted to fossil fuels and require them for our daily lives. The laptop I am writing this on is not powered by renewable energy but by whatever my local utility uses to power the grid. The time and energy devoted by the government to increasing American oil drilling capacity may play well politically, but takes us further from the day we can replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. "Drill baby drill" makes as little sense today as it did when Sarah Palin was pushing it.

It is important to acknowledge the importance of fossil fuels to the economy, and to understand how long it will take and how difficult it will be to transition away from these sources of energy. But that does not mean we should lease more federal lands to mine fossil fuels. The politics of renewable energy is complicated. The public likes the idea of shifting to renewables, but does not see the transition as a particularly high priority. They do not share the sense of urgency expressed by experts in ecology and climate science. Climate change, biodiversity loss, ecosystems damage and environmental impacts are not always visible and are often difficult to fully understand. We introduce new technologies into our production processes and waste cycles before we understand their impact on the environmental systems we rely on. When impacts are obvious and visible they achieve political salience and we are moved to act. Polluted drinking water in Charleston, West Virginia, radioactivity near Fukushima, Japan and air quality in Beijing, China are easy to see, sense and act on. Other forms of environmental damage must be modeled, projected or imagined and have lower political impact.

The environment is not the only issue that acts this way. In the 1990s, New York City's homicide rate was about seven times higher than today. Crime was the city's highest priority political issue. But today, the NYPD Commissioner can't get a budget increase to hire more cops. If the recent spike in killings increases, the issue may reemerge, but in politics out of sight is not only out of mind, it's out of the budget too.

The fossil fuel industry has a long history of effective lobbying. The oil embargo of the mid-1970s and the subsequent drive for energy "independence" increased the industry's political clout. The imagery of long gas lines and rapidly rising gasoline prices has had a lasting and powerful effect on American politics. The emergence of a global economy and a global market for fossil fuels has not penetrated America's political consciousness. Oil drilled in the United States might end up here, or it might be shipped someplace else if the price is right. The Middle East no longer dominates the oil market as it once did. The recent reductions in the price of oil provide an indication of the complexity and volatility of the fossil fuel market place. Nevertheless, the renewable energy industry has far less political influence than the fossil fuel industry, and the transition to renewable energy would be faster if that imbalance could be rectified.

There are two paths for the renewable energy industry to displace the fossil fuel industry. The first is for a transformational technological breakthrough that would provide energy that is as cheap and as reliable as fossil fuels. This could happen without government intervention in the same way that Apple and Microsoft developed and commercialized revolutionary software that made the personal computer possible. The second path is for a national government to provide aggressive incentives to adopt existing technologies and to fund the research and development needed to develop new technologies. The United States is capable of the first path. However, given our dysfunctional federal government and the role of fossil fuel money in politics, we are incapable of the second path. China and Europe may well be capable of pursuing both paths. While the economy is global, national sovereignty is still a critical force in world politics, and our children and their children will wonder why we sacrificed this piece of their economic future.

As for the deep sea drilling regulation, improved regulation of this complex and dangerous process is a good idea. Still, I wonder why it took five years to study and rectify this situation. I also wonder why the rules only apply to new drilling operations. Don't we care about safety in existing rigs? Finally, why are we drilling there in the first place? Clearly we've used up some of the oil that was easy to get to. I know that most of the planet is covered by water but isn't it time to develop an alternative energy that is safer and cleaner than fossil fuels?