Global Offshore Drilling Bonanza Heralds the Era of Deepwater Spills

The Obama administration just auctioned off over 20 million acres for offshore drilling. It cut deals with Mexico and Cuba to allow oil companies access to even more. Oily multinationals are moving into waters off the coasts of Africa, South America, and Europe. They're in the Arctic, in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. Many will be drilling in waters over 6,000 feet deep, in locales unregulated by the United States, under the jurisdiction of countries with more, ahem, flexible drilling regulations.

Here's the New York Times:

BP and other oil companies are intensifying their exploration and production in the gulf, which will soon surpass the levels attained before the accident. Drilling in the area is about to be expanded in Mexican and Cuban waters, beyond most American controls, even though any accident would almost inevitably affect the United States shoreline. Oil companies are also moving into new areas off the coast of East Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. The reason for the resumption of such drilling, analysts say, is continuing high demand for energy worldwide.

“We need the oil,” Amy Myers Jaffe, associate director of Rice University's energy program, told the Times. “The industry will have to improve and regulators will have to adjust, but the public will have to deal with the risk of drilling in deep waters or get out of their cars.”

And so, more deepwater spills are inevitable. They will be, as every other kind of oil spill has been, a fact of life. And I'm not being pessimistic, or dramatic—just blunt. There's no denying it, boys and girls, we're heading into a bold new era of increasingly desperate, technologically reckless, and significantly expanded deepwater drilling operations. The BP event didn't even register as a speedbump en route to the offshore drilling boom.

This era will be marked by some accidents that will seem tragically preventable in hindsight, but will most often seem like nothing at all, as most people won't even notice. In fact, a number of deepwater spills have already occurred, notably in China and Brazil. There will be more, of varying size and discernible impact, every year from here on out. Most will be out of sight and therefore out of mind for most Americans—few of us paid attention to the semi-annual BP spill-sized disasters in Nigeria, after all.

The most obvious villains are the oil companies who skirt safety regulations and cut corners, occasionally causing a rig with a dozen or so people on it to explode in the middle of the ocean. The less-fun villain is the industrialized global economy that is hardwired to require a shitload of oil to operate, that is still expanding at breakneck speeds in China and beyond, and that is central to the life you are currently leading as you know it. That villain is everywhere, and it is much more difficult, and again, less fun, to combat. In fact, it will take a veritable paradigmatic shift in consumption—whether spurred by taxes and tariffs, or some as-of-yet-unimagined revolution (technological or, maybe! social)—to successfully defeat.

Until then, get used to the image of oily waters lapping up on pristine shores. It's going to happen all the time.

Tags: Oil | Oil Spill