Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Why banning deep-sea drilling is a bit simplistic

There is no question that the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is a terrible tragedy in both human and environmental terms.

But to suggest it means President Obama should back off from opening up further tracts of US waters for oil exploration is a misunderstanding of what is at stake.

This is no call for complacency. The scale of the destruction is already heartbreaking, as the slick washes on to the Louisiana coast.

Every effort must be made to establish causes, stamp out regulatory laxity, and make sure such a calamity is never repeated.

BP could be held liable for costs that could run as high as $12bn (£8bn), and rightly so. But to leap to the conclusion that so-called "ultra-deep" drilling should be abandoned is a luxury we simply do not have.

It is an easy argument to make. The Deepwater Horizon spill is so enormous because the leak cannot be stopped.

And the leak cannot be stopped because it is beneath 5,000 feet of turbulent sea, in conditions so dark and heavy that attempts to use robots to shut down the well-head have been likened to working on the Moon.

Environmental groups claim the disaster as proof that oil is filthy, that the oil industry is irresponsible, and that ultra-deep water drilling is a step too far.

Other commentators are starting to make similar noises. If Deepwater looks serious, they are saying, imagine a similar incident at nearby Thunderhorse, where 300 people labour and 250,000 barrels of oil are pumped out every day. Suddenly BP's world-leading expertise in deep-water drilling looks like a daredevil stunt, its focus on the ultra-deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico like some kind of gratuitous adrenaline fix.

Not so. Rather, it is the only way to ensure a remotely smooth transition away from what Greenpeace calls our "addiction to oil", without a potentially devastating cold turkey.

The global thirst for energy being what it is, there is no alternative but to search for oil wherever it may be found. There is no commentator in the world who can responsibly call for less exploration.

There is also no immediate alternative to fossil fuels. We as a species may have decided we don't like them, may have decided that we must look for better ways to supply our energy needs, may even have started on such a course. But in the short term we have no option.

Nearly three weeks on from the Deepwater Horizon explosion, with oil pouring out at a horrifying rate of 200,000-plus gallons per day, it is too easy to say that we should not have been there at all.

But there is no choice but to press on. It is an affront to progress to suggest otherwise.

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