Op-Ed: Oil Drilling Unsafe In Every Backyard As oil continues to leak into Gulf Coast waters, policymakers in Washington are calling for a reassessment of offshore oil exploration. But Lisa Margonelli, executive director of the New America Foundation's energy initiative, warns that "every gallon of gas is a gallon of risks."
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Op-Ed: Oil Drilling Unsafe In Every Backyard

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Op-Ed: Oil Drilling Unsafe In Every Backyard

Op-Ed: Oil Drilling Unsafe In Every Backyard

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As oil continues leaking into Gulf Coast waters, political implications from the disaster are bubbling to the surface. Some in Washington want a reassessment of offshore oil drilling. Florida Senator Bill Nelson has called for a moratorium on new offshore oil exploration, while Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts has called for congressional hearings to examine the spill, as well as energy policy and gas prices in general.

But Lisa Margonelli, of the New America Foundation's energy initiative, argues that every gallon of gas is a gallon of risk. In an opinion piece in The New York Times, she writes that this spill is an opportunity to assess America's oil consumption.

What lesson have you drawn from the Deepwater Horizon spill? Has the accident changed your mind about how we get or consume oil? Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Lisa Margonelli is director of the New America Foundation's energy initiative and author of "Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to your Tank." You can find the link to her op-ed on our website at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Lisa Margonelli joins me now from Youth Radio in Oakland, California. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. LISA MARGONELLI (Director, New America Foundation Energy Policy Initiative): Thank you.

ROBERTS: You write that, on an emotional level, a moratorium on offshore drilling is a great idea. So what's wrong with it?

Ms. MARGONELLI: Well, I think we've had - every time we have a major spill, we have moratorium on drilling somewhere. The first moratorium was after the 1969 blowout and giant spill in Santa Barbara, which also was the foundation of Earth Day. So we had a moratorium on drilling off the East and West Coast then. And then we had another moratorium on drilling after the Exxon Valdez spill. And so, we've effectively had moratoriums in place for 40 years.

I think we need to move beyond the moratoriums. I mean, it's fine if we want to have some sort of moratorium, but the bigger underlying problem is that our gasoline consumption continues to rise. And that means, if we're not drilling on our own lands with our own environmental laws and our own wonderfully litigeneous society, ready to jump in and find and attack infractions, then we are basically importing oil from places - many of them third world countries -that don't have effective environmental laws in place or have governments that are not strong enough to enforce them.

So, for example, since 1969, the Niger Delta area of Nigeria has had the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez worth of oil spilled on its lands and mangrove swamps every single year since 1969.

ROBERTS: We have an email from David(ph), and David expresses sentiments several of our emails do, saying how we do we reconcile our voracious appetite for cheap oil with the manifold costs of acquiring cheap oil. It's not necessary to make the long and distressing list of these costs, although this recent oil spill is but one example - guaranteed to happen again, because advanced technology cannot solve the problem of gluttony.

The oil spill is so sad, but it shouldn't be surprising to any of us. And during the all the finger wagging that will undoubtedly start, why don't we start to point at ourselves, maybe in the rearview mirror of our huge SUV, or from the comfort of our couch in our houses heated to 72 degrees when it's zero degrees outside, or even when we buy fresh produce in January that was trucked in from Mexico or any number of luxury activities that originate with cheap oil?

Ms. MARGONELLI: Wow. Has that guy been reading my email?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARGONELLI: That's wonderful. I'm glad you feel that way, and I suggest that you get right on the phone and call your elected representatives and say that what we need is a comprehensive way - some sort of comprehensive legislation addressing a plan to decrease our oil consumption. And we can do it in many ways. One is to obviously raise the CAFE standards, another one is all the sorts of things that we did in the '70s with, you know, changing the speed limit to 55 and retiming the stops - the traffic lights. And there are lots of things that we can do to change traffic flow, but we can also do things like natural gas trucking and some alternative fuels.

And we can also think about changing the way that we commute. For example, asking large employers to take more responsibility for how their workers get to work. A company like Wal-Mart, for example, has 1.4 million employees. If they ran van pools to get them to work, it would remove a tremendous number of cars from the road and really ease the burden on the workers, of maintaining, oftentimes old cars, and paying for the gasoline when prices are high.

Anyway, there's a whole roster of things that we can do. And we need to really start attacking this. You know, 40 years of moratoriums on drilling clearly have not accomplished much, besides keeping the coastline clear for those of us in the U.S. who don't live in the Gulf Coast. And I don't think that we have a right to ask other people to accept spills.

One of the things that your caller mentioned was that, in a certain sense, oil spills are predictable. It's true. Oils - no - every oil spill is preventable. But oil spills are, essentially, inevitable. And the industry itself measures the rate of spill per ton-mile shipped. There is a - at a certain point, simply transporting the stuff and using the stuff exposes you to spills. And clearly, after many years of relatively safe operation in the Gulf, whether it's through negligence or through some sort of freak accident I mean, we still don't know what the cause of this thing is. But whatever it is, clearly, there remain great risks.

ROBERTS: Well, you trace the - these other spills and how they have had political implications. With the current political environment in which this spill happened - that is, you know, an increased drumbeat to decrease our dependence on foreign oil and maybe more of a consensus building about the possibility of offshore oil drilling, you know, the drill here, drill now being a campaign slogan; what - and rise in gas prices - I mean, prices that are hovering, you know, in some places close to $4 a gallon - what does all of that context lend to what do you think will come out of the political conversation around this spill?

Ms. MARGONELLI: Mm-hmm. Well, American's politics around oil are just rife with wishful thinking. And so what we tend to do is we tend to try to isolate the problem and say that we're solving some small part without addressing the larger issue, because the - our relationship to oil has really been an elephant in the room since the early '70s, in some sense is, it actually dates back to the '30s. We've - this has always been the sort of thing that we don't really want to touch, the essential elements of - but we have to.

And I think, in this case, what I would love to see happen is for all of these different interested groups, the environmentalists, the home food - the sort of home produce group, all the sort of - maybe a little bit survivalist types, all of the people who are interested in national security and people who are interested in cutting traffic jams, everyone basically, to come together and push for this. I think this is sort of one of these catalytic moments when we could really address this problem. And...

ROBERTS: Push for a conversation or push for a specific policy initiatives?

Ms. MARGONELLI: I think push for a conversation that leads to specific policy initiatives and a real commitment to reducing our dependence on oil, really reducing oil consumption by 10, 15, 20 percent over the next 10 years - and then continuing to push on beyond that. We know we have to do it for climate change. We know we have to do it for economic and security reasons. And this is a really good time to push, to actually do it.

ROBERTS: We have a listener, Joseph(ph) in Minnesota, who suggests a policy of raising the gas tax to a guaranteed $4 minimum. What do you think the implications of that would be?

Ms. MARGONELLI: Well, I think that one group that has a really hard time with high gas prices is working families, what we would call maybe the middle class or lower middle class. Because oftentimes, people are working three jobs and they have to commute between those jobs. And they don't have access to great credit, so they can't buy the latest car. These are not people who drive Priuses. They're people who drive second or third-hand SUVs with bad gas mileage. And those people really can't change where they live. They can't change where they commute to. They can't change the fact that they maybe covering three jobs. And we're really going to be putting the screws to those people.

And we would need to put in policies that would alleviate that for them or allow them to get access to credit to buy cleaner cars, or something. I mean, you can't just ask - you can't just say, oh, we're going to raise the gas price and that will teach those people - those rich people in the SUVs - because that's actually not the problem at this point.

ROBERTS: We have email from Richard(ph) in Ann Arbor, who says, in January, Cuba announced they would drill in the Strait of Florida. Mexico presumably drills of its ghost coast, which is - gulf coast - which is at least as long as ours. Does anyone rationally believe that a moratorium on the part of the U.S. will deter any other players in the Gulf from drilling?


(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: That's a succinct answer.

Ms. MARGONELLI: Yes. Mexico had a terrible blowout in the '80s, just a horrible, horrible accident in their coastal drip(ph) waters.

ROBERTS: We are talking about the political implications of the oil spill and what sort of conversation around energy policy in oil use might result from this. My guest is Lisa Margonelli. She's director of the New America Foundation's energy initiative. She's also the author of " Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip in Your Tank." She's got an op-ed out which you can read on our website, npr.org if you click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And you can join the conversation at 800-989-8255. And you can send us email, talk@npr.org or join the conversation on the website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's hear from Ian(ph) in Honolulu. Ian, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

IAN (Caller): Hey, thanks. Love the show. I completely agree with all the sentiments and have personally made - try to make my life less oil impacted and believe we need to reduce our consumption. But I wondered if (unintelligible)...

ROBERTS: Gasoline is expensive out there, isn't it?

IAN: Oh, it's really expensive and that's - but you'd be surprised. If you haven't been out here, people still drive giant SUVs and generally tend to not really - it's just accepted as a fact of life - which is why I'm a little concerned that, except for those people in the directly affected areas of the Gulf Coast, that people around the nation and certainly in other places just won't really consider this a reason to change their consumption habits. So I was wondering if maybe one - and it slightly challenges the idea that we have strong environmental laws - I wonder if we really actually do have strong laws when it comes to the safety - environmental, you know, plan B's and whatnot -for offshore drilling; and if this might be an opportunity to push through something a little more rigorous, and if the - if your expert has any idea of what those proposals should be. Because I really don't think that we've made a lot of progress in that, given that we've had eight years - two of the Republican administration - that really didn't feel that enforcing and making things safer and cleaner was necessarily a good idea.

ROBERTS: Ian, thanks for your call. And, Lisa, before you answer that question, let me just say you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Ms. MARGONELLI: Well, I think that we do need to reform drilling policy. One of the things that sticks out is, you know, after the Exxon Valdez, we reformed oil shipping with an act called the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 - that really dramatically reduced spills. But part of the way it did that, was by making the liability for a spill infinite. And that means that if you're going to ship, you know, just a million gallons of gasoline or something, you need to have a billion dollars worth of liability insurance. Which means that you've got, basically, insurance agents breathing down your neck about your safety practices all the time. It's kind of an extra lever on you.

And what's - one of the weird things that's come out of this spill is that the rig itself only had half a billion dollars worth of insurance on it. And you have to wonder if the rig had had $5 billion worth of insurance, given the damage it's capable of causing, if there would have been a different setup for the blow-out protector. So that's kind of the private sector solution to the, you know, regulation.

But the Minerals Management Service is a notoriously troubled agency. The general accounting office issued a whole bunch of very interesting reports about them in 2008, including the observation that we do not get enough money for our offshore oil in those leases, partly through some complexes exchanges that the Minerals Management Service is okay with; but partly because we simply don't charge them enough. And we might be missing out on 100 to $400 billion worth of extra payments, which is really appalling.

The next issue with the Minerals Management Service is that they're extremely close to the agency - to the industry that they regulate. And there was another scandal in 2008 in which they were fined - found to be doing drugs and accepting gifts, and actually having sex with members of the oil industry -which is, you know - I mean, it's hard to even describe how absurd that is for a regulatory agency that oversees both safety and finance.

Obviously, this is an agency that needs some kind of reform. And, of course, there are things that we can do to make drilling safer, but the question is, there's always going to be the sort of black swan, one in 10 million, events. I mean, we still don't know what this - what caused the spill. Was it an accident that was a one in a - you know, one in a kazillion(ph)? Or is this some sort of cascade of negligence that could have been foreseen. We don't know - or some mixture.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Susan(ph) in East Windsor, New Jersey. Susan, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi. I agree we need a conversation about our oil usage, but we haven't had a conversation about any national policy in a long time. It's talking points versus talking points. And until that culture's changed, I'm not sure what we can do, other than individual efforts - which, you know, we take public transportation when we can, which is very frustrating, even in the Northeast. And we own a Prius, and our other car is a fuel-efficient car, also. But, you know, individually, I'm from Louisiana. This breaks my heart. I used to fish in the waters there with my dad. But...

ROBERTS: Susan, I'm afraid your line is breaking up, so I'm going to let you go and ask Lisa Margonelli to answer the question about how do you get a conversation started.

Ms. MARGONELLI: Well, I think this is the beginning of the conversation. You see people starting to break out of the old mold of just calling for a moratorium, or of people yelling moratorium versus drill, baby, drill - which was a simply absurd argument. We do tend to reduce this to cartoons. And, in fact, you know, oil is just so complex and it's so embedded in our lives, in ourselves, in our - you know, many of our parents got together in the backs of cars. I mean, we are the people of oil, more than we have any idea.

And we just - we need to really start talking about that in new ways, and kind of breaking out of the old patterns of environmentalists versus business, or oil industry versus regulators. And we need to work out this at - in a much more systematic way. At the same time, I think that there's a real case to be made for getting your - getting on the phone to your legislator and saying, I want some sort of comprehensive petroleum reform.

I think that we have a history sometimes of throwing together some pretty decent regulation out of a crisis, and it helps shape going forward in the future. The OPA 90 Act, that I mentioned before, was essentially - you know, it was done fairly quickly, it was done out of necessity, and it has really dramatically reduced transportation spills.

ROBERTS: Lisa Margonelli is director of the New America Foundation's energy initiative and author of "Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank." She joined us from the studios of Youth Radio on Oakland, California. Thank you so much.

Ms. MARGONELLI: Thank you.

ROBERTS: You can read her op-ed, which appeared in The New York Times, on our website, npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, "Wide Awake: A Memoir Of Insomnia."

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

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