The argument for offshore oil drilling has focused, wrongly, on current gasoline prices.
It's been well established that increased offshore oil drilling would make, at best, a few cents of difference on pump prices in about 10 years, assuming that the world's insatiable thirst for oil doesn't continue to increase, which is about as likely as Dick Cheney giving up hunting.
The argument against oil drilling has, also wrongly, focused on the potential environmental disasters in store from offshore drilling. Congress and past presidents restricted offshore oil drilling because of catastrophic spills that turned public opinion, particularly the opinion of beach-goers and wealthy coastal landowners, soundly against the idea of energy exploration near their ocean views.
At least, I thought the environmental disaster argument was wrong -- because it misses a larger point: Investing in oil now is like deciding it's a good time to get into the subprime mortgage business. The game ending, and you've already lost. Better to invest in alternatives now, while we still have enough oil to run the economy, than to postpone the inevitable and invite a future of persistent scarcity and high costs that dwarf those we've endured recently. (This is the pragmatic argument, ignoring completely for a moment that weaning ourselves off oil and coal will be essential to solve the global warming crisis.)
But maybe the offshore oil-environmental catastrophe argument is right after all.
Exhibit A: Exxon-Mobil.
While Exxon was raking in mind-blowing profits that make the corporation easily more powerful and influential than many sovereign nations on this planet, it was ignoring Environmental Protection Agency directives to stop polluting from a gas and oil rig in the Santa Barbara Channel, off the coast of Southern California.
For two years, according to the EPA, Exxon just ignored a PCB leak, allowing at least 400 gallons of the notoriously toxic and long-lived (not to mention banned) oil to leak into the open waters of the Pacific.
In the EPA's bureaucratic terms this amounts to "allegedly disposing of and improperly handling polychlorinated biphenyls ... in violation of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act."
The penalty, assessed last week: $2.64 million. Exxon agreed to the penalty -- less than 1% of the $11.68 billion it made in the last quarter alone -- to settle the case. (Publicity for its last earnings report: 896 news stories. Publicity for its two-year-old PCB leak: zero.)
PCBs were banned in 1978 when government regulators caught up with independent scientists, who had been warning that the class of synthetic chemical oils cause a litany of health problems -- cancer, birth defects, reproductive problems, hormone disruption, etc. -- and basically never go away. PCBs have been found in Arctic wildlife not because there are significant PCB plants, uses or dumps there, but because they travel with the weather and have rained down, polluting otherwise pristine environments. PCBs are the reason you can't safely eat most fish in the Hudson, the Housatonic, the Fox and other iconic American rivers. PCBs stick to fat and accumulate in the tissues of living things (yes, humans too; PCBs are in the breast milk of many American women), becoming more concentrated in animals higher on the food chain.
To counteract the "but nobody told me" argument companies have used to avoid responsibility for cleaning up the mess PCBs have left around the U.S., environmentalists frequently point out that health concerns about PCBs emerged generations ago, as far back as the 1930s. Despite the concerns, industry continued to use the Monsanto-made chemicals as insulators in electrical equipment -- because they were so cheap and effective.
And yet, Exxon not only allegedly allowed the PCBs to spill into the ocean, but also failed to protect the workers it assigned to clean the oils up, according to the EPA. (Maybe Exxon just didn't get the memo for the last 30 years or so, or maybe it doesn't have Internet access on the oil rig).
When we think about oil spills from offshore rigs, we think of petroleum, not PCBs. Different oil, same issue: Responsibility. Can we trust the oil companies with our natural resources?
I don't know what it costs to replace a leaky electrical transformer or two on an oil rig, but I bet it's less than $2.64 million. With Exxon, it was just easier to pollute and pay the price. The cost of doing business seems to have simply included a $2.64 million slap on the wrist from the EPA for fouling U.S. offshore waters.
What can we expect from this incredibly rich company if we allow it to drill for more oil in our more of our oceans?
We already know.
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