Policy blowout

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It's quite likely President Obama is experiencing policymaker's remorse about now, the depth of said remorse probably somewhere in direct correlation to the increasing size of the BP-blowout oil spill and its encroaching proximity to Gulf state shores. The oil slick could make a devastating landfall as early as this weekend. Obama surprised some supporters, particularly among environmentalists, when he offered up new vistas of off-shore oil and gas exploration to the oil industry as part of his revised everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to energy policy, aimed at moving the nation a little closer to self-reliance and a little away from too-deep a reliance on one power source.

It was clear the administration understood that the decision to include an unprecedented generosity on off-shore drilling would be controversial, so much exposition about the improved technology and safety of offshore oil-rig production was part of the rhetorical package used to sell the policy. That confidence seems sadly misplaced now as each day the news from the Gulf only gets worse and the spill-without-end pumps as much as 5,000 barrels a day into Gulf waters, all fail-safe mechanisms having failed and no one apparently with a clear idea of how this wellhead can be capped and the oil cut off any time soon. Unless the flow is stopped, the oil, despite the best efforts of the Coast Guard now engaged in a risky attempt to burn off as much of the spill as possible, will surely begin to wash up on Louisiana and other Gulf state beaches, causing incalculable ecological and economic damage to fisheries and marshes.

There is a lot at stake here and not just for British Petroleum, which just reported record profits even as other news emerged that it had been one of the oil companies which had resisted tightening safety regulations for off-shore exploration. The company in recent years has played host to a distressing string of fatal accidents, spills and federal penalities. The entire industry will once again be under a microscope just as Obama's new plans had offered a huge revival of fortunes. Florida's Gov. Crist, after completing an aerial inspection of the spill zone and with an eye no doubt on election polls, has already declared that Florida will not be among the states allowing new off-shore drilling.

The death of 11 workers on the rig, coming so soon after the loss of 29 miners in a coal mine explosion in Montcoal, West Virginia, is another stark reminder of some of the uncalculated costs of our national energy policy. This loss of life and the unprecedented ecological threat offered by the BP spill make industry protests about the purported uncompetitiveness of solar, wind and other unconventional energy sources seem disingenuous if not downright malevolent. As one environmentalist said recently, I have never heard of a solar blowout or a wind farm spill, and the human costs of energy production from such sources is not likely to approach anything near what we accept from oil and coal production or the catastrophic potential of nuclear energy.

As we debate the rationality of expanding off-shore production, let's remember these high costs and the likelihood that oil from lucky strikes in the ocean will not be flowing for more than a decade, and even then there is no guarantee that oil won't be bought off by global players with deeper pockets in the future. The market says alternative energy is too costly to warrant large-scale investments today, but that's only if you ignore completely or irrationally discount the many and profound and permanent costs of our current energy policy.